‘Notes On The Death Of Culture’ By The Philosopher William Earle
William Earle: ‘Notes on the Death of Culture’, in MR Stein, AJ Vidich & DM White (eds), Identity and Anxiety, Free Press of Glencoe, 1960, 367-383
The culture of the western world has for some time been under diagnosis as though it were a patient sick with an unknown disease. The doctors are agreed only on this: the illness is acute. They differ on when it began, and how long the patient may be expected to live; they differ on how radical the cure must be. But, for a long time, no one has been very happy with it. Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Matthew Arnold, Spengler, Eliot, Jaspers, Marcel, to name a few, all find something radically wrong. Some, like Hegel, had the sense of living at the end of a great period, a twilight in which they could reflect on the work of the day. Others, like Marx, thought they could perceive the cause in socio-economic factors which were correctable by revolution. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche saw the sickness in religious terms; Kierkegaard in the progressive loss of individuality, inwardness, and passion; Nietzsche saw it in the “herd-men,” the “nay-sayers,” and prophesied something beyond man, superman, who could at last affirm himself and life. But all the doctors feel that something is finished.
The subject is, of course, vast, and no one can hope to see more than can be seen through a tiny crack. Each must make his own diagnosis from his own peculiar standpoint, and that is what I shall try here. There can be no harm in looking once again at what passes for culture, estimating it, and pronouncing our own death sentence. My purpose, however, is not altogether negative; for although culture may be dead, the human spirit is not. If it is not altogether futile to dream, perhaps something better can he hoped for. At the end, then, I shall express my private dreams.
What, then, is culture ideally, and why is western culture dead? It is clear at the start that we are not talking about culture as a leisure-time activity, as entertainment alone; nor simply as that part of the communal work which never earns its own pay and must therefore be supported by tax-exempt donations. Nor is it an affair of snobs. Nor (368) exclusively of universities. Nor of impresarios. There can be no question of isolating it on one page of the newspaper, or of escaping it altogether. For culture in its deepest sense is the whole life of the human spirit in communities. There is no sense, therefore, in seeing culture as only one part of that total life; or rather, when it appears in that light, something is radically wrong with the culture in that community.
Human culture, of course, is not something which has its own independent existence. It is not a rock-formation which requires little or no attention, which simply is. It is a product of the human spirit, and that particular sort of product which is never finally produced; that is, culture is nothing but the life of human beings, and for culture to be alive means that actual human beings live in it. Culture, then, is that medium which the human spirit creates for its own life; looked at objectively it is found in the works of the spirit, in language, customs, institutions, as well as buildings, monuments, works of art, and symbols; but subjectively, all of these must be lived in. The accumulation of unread books may be important to a statistician, but those works have not entered into culture until they are read.
The human spirit, then, cannot take itself for granted. It may be found in all men and at all times, but what is then found is nothing but potential spirit. For its life, it must act; and its action is its life within culture. And so while the planets need not give themselves the slightest trouble over their movement, the spirit must; it is alive only when it is creating its own life. That life is not automatic, nor instinctual; it must be created by the spirit itself. Hence, since the spirit is alive only when it is creating itself, the very life of the spirit is dependent upon its concern. Its concern is precisely for itself, for its life, for that life is only possible as a free effort. Concern is one fundamental feature of the spirit, but it should be noted in addition that the concern in question is conscious though not necessarily self-conscious. The spirit is nothing but consciousness, its life is conscious, and let it have what subconscious bases and memories it does have, it invariably must seek consciousness. It seeks to become lucid about what it itself is and what other things are. Lucidity, then, is a second mark of the spirit.
And finally, since the human spirit is inevitably in individuals, the life of the individual must manifest itself to others. In culture, each participates in the whole by encountering the expressions of others, and expressing or manifesting itself. Thus, the individual can emerge out of the limitations of his own privacy. In short, the life of the human spirit has three notable aspects: it lives only through its concern with itself, it lives or seeks to live on the plane of lucidity, and it expresses itself in objective works. Now these three features are nothing but functions; functioning together, they create culture. But when they take on a pseudo-life of their own, and (369) desire to become distinct activities, professionalised, and definable in themselves, we arrive at the contemporary scene: concern becomes the special province of “religion”; lucidity becomes the special province of “science” and “philosophy”; expression becomes the speciality of the “arts.” And, in a nutshell, this is our own diagnosis. What now passes for “philosophy” is not and does not aspire to be a lucidity of the spirit. It is “technical,” that is, pure knowledge devoid of any interest in the concerns of the spirit. What passes for religion is an “ultimate concern” which is not and cannot be made lucid by philosophy or science. And what passes for art, is something thought to be pure expression, with no content, and above all no “message.” The net result is that in aspiring toward absolute purity, toward independence, and toward the technical, these activities which might be the supreme expressions of the human spirit have achieved absolute triviality. They are, in our diagnosis, one and all dead. Worse, they are on the verge of becoming ridiculous. But before continuing with these bitter reflections, I should add that while I see little or nothing in the contemporary scene worth imitating or continuing, it would be both fatuous and ungrateful to ignore the genius which has gone into making it. Our criticisms are compatible with honor to the great; the creators of contemporary culture had very good reasons for what they did. But we must question whether those reasons are still valid, and whether we wish to continue in the same direction. And it should also be emphasized that there can be no question of imitating some past. If the present is not worth imitating, the past cannot be imitated. The truth is that no living spirit can imitate at all. We must not dream then of some “neo-,” but rather of something genuinely new.
Meanwhile, there may still be a question in some reader’s mind whether these noble activities are really dead. Perhaps the corpse still twitches. And so let us take a look at the contemporary philosopher, as he sees himself, and pronounce our judgment. And, sad as the picture is, as a professional philosopher I must include myself in the picture I am drawing; but my intent is neither confession nor accusation, but I hope, diagnosis.
The Technical Philosopher
Here I must beg leave to inform the general reader about technical philosophy, since he could not possibly know what it is unless he engaged in it. He most certainly will know the names of contemporary painters and composers; but will he know the name of a single technical philosopher? But this is more or less as it should be, as I shall presently demonstrate. Now, is the philosophy of the technical philosopher quite dead? Someone who could not read might gather that philosophy had never been more (370) active. The number of articles published in our technical journals is staggering; no one could possibly read them all, or remember a single one. These articles, and not books, are our special product. Professional philosophers are men who belong to professional associations, subscribe to professional journals, write these articles, reprints of which they pay for and send to friends, and who earn their living by teaching young men to do the same: write articles and teach young men to do the same. Altogether then we constitute a new phenomenon, the professionalization of wisdom. Let us take a closer look then at the Technical Philosopher.
First of all, his most characteristic temperamental trait is his extraordinary sensitivity to a certain criticism: that of being “edifying.” In our inner professional circles, a more pointed sneer could hardly be found than that a work is edifying and suffused with uplift. Such a comment has almost the force of revoking a philosopher’s Ph.D.; the accused winces inwardly and can only clear his name by writing not one but several articles for the Journal of Symbolic Logic. These articles, however, need not actually be read by his colleagues; everyone knows in advance that there could be nothing edifying in the pages of the Journal of Symbolic Logic.
The criticism of edification or uplift is particularly cutting since it touches upon the intent of the philosopher; no one can be edifying unless he intends to be; and it is this intent which represents a disloyalty to all the values of Technical Philosophy. There is another criticism, not quite so devastating since it does not concern itself with one’s intent, but only with the worthlessness of one’s accomplishment: and that is “muddle-headedness.” In the view of Technical Philosophy, all traditional philosophy was muddleheaded, had no idea of what it was doing, and did even that badly. Muddleheadedness is almost a style of thinking, the old style, and is exactly what might be expected of a philosopher who intended to be edifying. For the most part, one need only read the titles of the classics in philosophy to perceive the muddleheadedness from which they sprang. Sometimes the very face of the philosopher is enough; a muddleheaded philosopher will have a softer face, there will be less aggressiveness in it, and sometimes a trace of serenity.
What, positively, does the new Technical Philosopher desire to be? Well, of course, technical, that is, scientific above all. He wishes to regard himself as a philosophical worker, or even “researcher”; his work is thought of as a “research project,” and if he can concoct a “co-operative research project,” he will have no difficulty whatsoever in getting a grant from a foundation. Can not many think better than one? Has not co-operation proved beneficial in the sciences? If the Technical Philosopher did not retain some faded memory of his tradition, he would be delighted to teach his classes in a white laboratory coat; instead he carries a briefcase.
(371) His inquiries, investigations, and research will be embodied in a “monograph,” a short paper with the “problem” clearly stated at the beginning, and at the end a summary of the “results”. The monograph must also refer to the other “literature” on the subject. The Technical Philosopher thus is short winded; he has an instinctive distaste for the sprawling works of the nineteenth century, when philosophers sometimes sought a larger view of things. One of the most influential of the new philosophers was Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose books were composed of separated pithy sentences and paragraphs, each of which is numbered for easy reference. This unfortunate man did not live to see his work undone; for now each sentence is being reinflated back into an article for the journal Mind. Close to the fear of being edifying is that of being a windbag. The Technical Philosopher feels that everything can be said quickly and to the point. At the meetings of his professional associations, papers are limited to twenty minutes. The president alone can speak at greater length, but since he speaks after dinner, he is obliged to devote a third of his time to telling jokes. And here I must add my own note of approval; when we have nothing to say, surely twenty minutes is not too short a time in which to say it.
The new style of Technical Philosophy is remarkable since it expresses something about the philosophy itself. The style tends toward the telegraphic code. One reason for this is that the paper must be capable of being read during office hours, and make no demands upon the week ends. Technical Philosophy, the reader must understand, is simply one sort of work for which one is paid. It should have no resonance beyond those hours. When carried to ideal perfection, it is expressed in some form of artificial symbolism, which takes years of training to read with any ease. The Technical Philosopher has always envied the mathematician, with his proofs and symbols. And he has always had a fear of natural or ordinary language. Ordinary language is so obscure; words come dripping out of a sea of feelings and related meanings, and are logically unmanageable. Therefore we have devised a new language, symbolic logic, which begins with marks having no meaning at all; whatever meaning they acquire is given to them by other marks, which serve as their definitions. Now everything should be clear, and to some extent it is; but unfortunately the language is so impoverished that nothing of any importance can be said in it, and so artificial in form that error is perhaps more frequent in it than in our mother tongue.
One of the most desirable features of symbolic logic in the eyes of Technical Philosophers is its impersonality. It states the pure core of the argument with no emotional nonsense. The writer is invisible behind his symbols, although some who wish to be extraordinarily sensitive profess to be able still to detect personality now in terms of the “elegance” of (372) the proof. But I do not know if this contention has ever been thoroughly tested. The Technical Philosopher detests “style,” for he sees it as expressing personal attitudes and what difference can they make? Style in an argument is as disturbing and inappropriate as perfume or sweat on the eyepiece of a telescope. The Technical Philosopher desires to be impersonal, to write impersonally, and to disappear entirely into his analyses. And to a surprising degree he succeeds, for, to be frank, there isn’t much to disappear.
Now these various stylistic features of Technical Philosophy are not accidental peculiarities. They all flow, as I see it, from the substance of the philosophy itself. And so perhaps it is time to look at it. Professor Morton White characterizes our age as the age of “analysis”; and this is exact, unfortunately. The general reader may be tempted to confuse “analysis” with “psycho-analysis”; and that would be a mistake. What the philosopher “analyzes” today is not the psyche, but rather words, phrases, sentences, arguments, which purport to say something meaningful or true. The Technical Philosopher finds everything said more or less confused and unclear. And if you are not initially confused, there is no one like a good analyst to demonstrate the confusion which lurks in the most innocent phrase; and there is no question whatsoever the Technical Philosopher can exhibit confusions which would have confused no one.
Technical Philosophy then is “analysis.” But what is analysis? There is no problem here, to analyze anything is to break it down, to dissolve it into its components, to reduce it from its initial totality into its ingredient parts. Then the parts are reassembled back into the whole, and lo! now, for the first time, we “understand” what that whole was. But in all of this, two aspects hit the eye. The first is the assumption that language is not clear in its first usage. It must be made clear by the analysis. The second is the fervent assumption that the philosopher himself is entitled only to analyze; that is, his work consists of tearing apart intellectually phrases others have put together. He analyzes syntheses but he makes no synthesis himself. Let us examine more closely both of these assumptions.
The first assumption that language is not clear in its direct employment has the consequence that only the analytical philosopher knows the clear meaning of what others are saying. But, then, if their initial language was unclear in the first place, how could the analytical philosopher know whether his analysis was right or wrong? And so we find in Mind, a leading magazine for such discussions, articles written about articles written themselves about articles, all agitating the question whether an analysis really gives us the original meaning. Now if the original meaning was clear itself, what need for the analysis; and if it was not clear how could one verify the analysis? But the New Philosophers somehow succeed in making original utterances unclear in order to clear them up. This activity (373) itself breaks down into two schools; one finds that all ordinary language is obscure, and can only be made clear by translating it into some artificial symbolism. These philosophers are called “ideal language men.” A second school is anti-philosophical, and finds that all philosophic problems are generated by misunderstanding ordinary language. They “clarify” traditional philosophic problems by showing that there was no genuine problem, only a misuse or misunderstanding of ordinary language. These philosophers are called “ordinary language men.” Now the result of both schools is that the new philosopher need know in his professional capacity absolutely nothing except how words are used. For all Technical Philosophers feel that there are but two matters of concern to knowledge. There are the “facts,” and there is the question of how to express these facts clearly. The Technical Philosopher prohibits himself professionally from arguing “facts.” All facts are to be drawn from the “sciences,” which is another department of the university. And so he has nothing to do but analyse language, in a professional indifference to facts. Most of “analysis” then, consists of analysing the language other and more traditional philosophers have used. Here there are no facts.
Now the second aspect of the whole matter is that the Technical Philosopher makes no syntheses himself, i.e., he has nothing to say. This, of course, takes its toll on our mood. For as Technical Philosophers, we can never really say anything new by ourselves. Others have to say it first, and then we analyze what they have said. This means we can never speak first, and must wait for somebody else to provide a sentence or phrase which can then be analyzed. And too often it turns out that there is nothing to analyze. The first sentence was perfectly clear to all present except ourselves; and so our analyses have only the function of demonstrating the obvious or explaining the joke. Hence our bad temper. Further, our entire attitude toward sentences is hostile; we live in the mood of the hunter stalking the big kill, the phrase which is ambiguous or which contains, in the words of Gilbert Ryle, a “howler.” This analytic hostility is, obviously, incompatible with love, with serenity, and with any comprehension of those meanings and subtleties which presuppose sympathy and love for their very sense. No wonder our brows are furrowed, our eyes narrow and glittering, our lips thin and compressed and already twisting into a smile of derision before the sentence is finished; we have detected a howler! The old style of serene sage has definitely disappeared from the scene. The ethic of the New Philosopher was expressed by Morris Cohen in his famous reply to the question why he was always critical: “It is enough to clean the Augean stables.” But then the question remains as to the definition of dirt; precisely what is to be cleaned out? The New Philosopher wishes to clean out everything except what the scientists say or what he supposes “common sense” to be. But there is a vast agreement (374) that traditional philosophy is the very ordure which logical, scientific, and clear-headed thinking must flush away as speedily as possible. The British technical philosophers especially trust something they call “common sense”; their American counterparts dote on “science.” But in all cases, the content of philosophy is not supplied by philosophy; Technical Philosophy has no content of its own. It is rather a gigantic hose designed to flush the stables of traditional philosophy. Or perhaps a flame thrower, turned not only on filth and confusion, but also stables, horses, and finally the flame-thrower himself. The Technical Philosopher is the point of pure negativity, an eye which would like to see pure light but cannot because of visible things. It is this final phase which is the death of philosophy as well as a darkening of the lucidity possible to the spirit. Philosophy has at last achieved the pure heights of having no content, nothing to say, and nothing to do except analyze the confusions in what others say into an unintelligible jargon of its own.
To ask a Technical Philosopher for his vision of the world is to throw him into the worst of embarrassments. It is hopelessly to misunderstand what philosophy now is. The philosopher’s answer will not try to supply that vision, or even recognize its absence; rather it will analyze the meaning of your question in order to show that it really has no meaning at all. It is left for others to supply the vision.
In summary then, the Technical Philosopher analogizes himself to the scientist. He wishes to be brief, technical in style and subject matter, impersonal, unemotional, and unedifying. He does not expect the layman to understand what he says, and would be slightly embarrassed if the layman did. He has nothing positive to offer, no vision of life or the world, no summary attitude or total view. His positive activity is to analyze statements made by others, but never in his professional role to make such original statements himself. He assumes that somehow or other the cumulation of these technical analyses in the library adds up to something of value. The New Philosopher does not wish to speak of matters of human concern. He only wishes to be clear about little things. He does not believe in his heart that one can be clear about big things, or that philosophy should address itself to human concern. One of the classical works most in disrepute today is Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy. The Technical Philosopher knows analysis will bring no consolation. He is not the pompous philosopher of the old style; rather he regards himself as a technician who “does philosophy” more or less in his office during school hours. Week ends are another matter, a vacation from philosophy.
Now this was not always so. For the longest stretch of its history, philosophy was, embarrassing as it is to Technical Philosophy, concerned precisely with large visions and the edifying. That is, it was concerned with the human situation and what was to be done about it. For traditional (375) philosophy, as well as for religion, man was regarded as a suffering animal, not merely suffering in life from correctable ills, but suffering from life, from the intrinsic and inevitable ills. Philosophy did not specifically address itself to the particular evils in life, such as sickness, poverty, war, and tyranny. The point of view of philosophy was that even if all these were corrected, we should still be suffering spirits. In short, man seeks some way of saving the meaning of his life in spite of his death, in spite of his guilt, pain, and misery. Philosophy then had its own proper mode of salvation, which was not to live an imaginary life in some beyond, nor systematically to blind oneself to the necessary pain of living, but to comprehend the meaning of these things. Philosophy has always been in a more or less gnostic tradition, by which man could save something from the wreck of his life by comprehending it. The mode of salvation offered by philosophy was called wisdom, and philosophy is named after its love. By wisdom alone can men rise above dumb and meaningless suffering to a comprehension of its meaning, and that comprehension was the comprehension of something eternal and blessed. Now, all of this is edifying, of course, and moves within the circle of ethical, religious, and esthetic categories. The various “answers” to the question of the “meaning” of life given in philosophy center on the notion of truth; and philosophizing implies as its necessary pre-condition as well as aim, an alteration in attitude toward life. And this is the pure edification worked by truth. The formulations of the end or meaning are various: “spectator of all time and existence,” “the flight of the alone to the Alone,” the “intellectual love of God,” “amor fati,” “participation in the Absolute Idea,” etc. They are not so various, however, but what they do not express is a common meaning, the sense that human life culminates ideally in a lucidity about itself and its highest concerns. Wisdom was never merely a doctrine, although it had its doctrines. It was rather a pursuit of that height of soul from which the last truth could be seen. Now obviously such matters are not fit topics for Ph.D. dissertations, class-room examinations, or “technical analyses.” For is not open to anyone equipped with nothing but the criteria of logic to comprehend the sense of philosophy; in addition, the “analyst” must have a trace of the love of wisdom himself. And so it is not surprising that Technical Philosophers find in traditional philosophy with its flights and soarings, its edification and enthusiasm, nothing but a muddle of banality and mystification. The ambiguities of traditional philosophy are maddening to the new philosophical specialists; but perhaps it was precisely these against whom the ancient doctrine wished to protect itself. How indeed can the same ultimate things be said to young and old alike, to wise and foolish? Better to speak in enigmas which in their very strangeness might suggest a meaning different from that which meets the hasty eye.
Technical Philosophy steers clear of wisdom. Or worse, it is convinced (376) that there isn’t any, or if there is, it isn’t the philosopher’s business. And so the “muddled problems” of traditional philosophy are translated into clear ones, into problems which can be solved by technical means, by objective action rather than any inner transformation. The suffering of life is thus “analyzed” into a series of correctable ills. If it is disease you mean, then medicine will find the answer. If poverty, then social and economic measures are indicated. If ignorance, then more schooling. John Stuart Mill thought that these summed up human misery, and the remarkable thing in such an analysis is that not one requires for its solution an inner philosophic transformation of attitude toward life. One need only remain exactly as one is, see things exactly as they are now, and work out the answer upon which everyone can agree. The fact that no philosopher ever regarded his philosophy as a spurious medicine, economics, or schooling gave him no pause. They must have been muddled about their own real intent. And what is left over after all the medicine, wealth, and education have had their chance to work? A few minor matters such as death, guilt, and the meaninglessness which is always ready to rise up in even the happiest. And suppose disease, poverty, and ignorance could eventually be eliminated, as everyone must hope, what is to be done now when they are not? Technical Philosophers are silent on these matters, or vaguely embarrassed. They have nothing to say. They have no vision, want none, and more or less identify philosophic vision with hallucination. As for “changes of attitudes,” if these have any importance at all, there are experts for them too. The psychoanalyst is in best repute, but the flabbier Technical Philosophers feel that this is what the preacher might be for, with his tired old platitudes. In any event, pure knowledge has nothing to do here; it seeks absolute purity, absolute independence, and absolute irrelevance to anything anyone might conceivably be interested in. Thus has a noble discipline committed suicide.
And Art and Religion
Philosophy as wisdom has been dying a long time; but what about art and religion? When we think of the images it once gave of the mystery of human life: Oedipus, Antigone, Medea, Hamlet, Lear, Faust, Ahab; or the gods, heroes and horsemen of the Parthenon; the faces of Rembrandt, the crucifixions of Grünewald, El Greco … And what were these but the human spirit seeking and giving expression to its ultimate clarity about its ultimate concerns? Here there was no question of “pure composition,” of “pure expression,” or even of the purely “esthetic.” They are least of all “sensuous surfaces.” The truth of the matter is that while these (377) mysterious images are typically regarded as “art,” they are just as much wisdom and religion. Now, the complaint is not that art today is “not as great” as it once was. It is true that it is not; but such judgments remain vacuous unless the question is transposed from the level of accusation to that of principle. There can be no question but that the human spirit | potentially has the same eternal depths as always. If its results are incomparably more trivial, it is not due to lack of genius, but it may be due to certain directions taken individually and culturally, to certain ideals now dominant, which require examination in art as they do in philosophy. Is it accidental that the most creative painter in our day no longer seeks to give an image of the human reality, but contents himself with images of its distortion; and that when he is moved to express what he sees of life it comes out as the melodramatic slaughterhouse of Guernica? Or is it accidental that this passes for his “human concern,” his “insight” into the human reality? But since when has wisdom resided in an intensity of outrage over physical destruction? If we should finally lose our minds over malice, cruelty, and destruction would that be the ultimate achievement of insight and wisdom? The perception of evil some time ago was regarded as the bare beginning of the problem.
But then the contemporary arts are not noted for their images of the human reality. In place of such muddles, we find the ideal of “pure expression.” The arts must free themselves, from foreign emotions, associations, content, “reality,” and become what? The purely optical, auditory, verbal? An entertainment for the senses? In literature it used to be Mallarmé, Gertrude Stein, and the puns of Joyce. But we needn’t limit ourselves to the passé. The same phenomenon occurs whenever literature aspires toward pure style or whenever we see the emergence of the “professional writer.” Professional artists of whatever sort or those whose profession is measured by skill in the manipulation of their respective media. The writer is measured by his ability to use words; but words, unfortunately, are symbols of something which is not words. That of which they are symbols is, of course, their content, but content for the professional is a matter of indifference. As a painter, he can equally well do a wine bottle, a scrap of newspaper or the human face. And so indeed he can so long as the human face is seen as a composition of “lines and planes,” since it has this and this alone in common with everything visible. And, so long as we are interested only in compositions of lines and planes, light and shadow, we may as well suppress the human face altogether; it is but a “literary association,” or a “photographic” residue; pure creation will create with nothing but color and shape, and all it will create will be color and shape. The writer similarly will be able to write equally well about anything. His prose or poetry will be judged on its own merits; and what are these merits when we have abstracted from their reference to what (378) lies out beyond them? Nothing is left but their “rhythm,” “organization,” “color,” “originality of expression,” “style,” in short, everything but their truth and content. It is as if one were to judge a dinner exclusively by the plates on which it was served.
And since it is not possible to remove all reference to the human reality, there will be a trace of interest left in the content, that is, in what is exhibited of the human spirit. But since there is now no communal religion or philosophy which might extend the private sensibility of the writer, he must, if he is honest, fall back on his private imagination and feelings; and here we see again and again the impoverishment which the purely private brings. The honest feelings which the artist finally discovers within himself insofar as he rejects what light philosophy and religion might ideally offer, are not higher or more sincere or deeper truths; most frequently they reduce themselves to our old friend, sex.
Without extending the discussion endlessly, the same phenomena can be indicated in the other arts. Music in its turn also desires to be pure music, pure composition, to have nothing to do with “emotion,” which is always “extra-musical”. When emotion is mentioned, the opponents of it point to the most flagrant examples of Tchaikovsky; is that what is wanted? Or perhaps program music, where the title and accompanying notes tell the listener what to feel? And since no one could argue for any such thing, the conclusion is drawn that emotion as such is foreign to music, or music has its own pure emotions. Now the composer is thought of as a species of engineer either tailoring his composition to one record side, to an accompanying film or, if these frankly external limits are abandoned, and he is a pure composer, then the “composition itself’ dictates its own form. But, of course, notes and scales do not and can not dictate what is done with them, any more than words can dictate what is said with them. At best they set certain negative limits. The result is that “pure composition” is a radical absurdity, and as meaningless a phrase as “pure expression.” The only practical result of such slogans and phrases is to divert the attention of the composer from the significance that emotion musically expressed might have, from the possible depths of emotion, to a pursuit of “pure” music, or compositions which are as devoid of feeling as possible; this leaves us on the one hand with paper compositions, supposed to be deep because nothing whatsoever can be felt through what is heard and where the chief delights derive from conceptual patterns emerging from a study of the score, or on the other hand, the delights of purely aural contrasts, music which is little but orchestration, a composition of timbres, rhythms, and sudden dynamic shifts, an art of concocting thrills for the ear or tests for high-fidelity phonographs.
In our critical mood, we may as well look at what religion has become. (379) Some men still take it seriously, bringing themselves to believe it still retains some trace of something or other of concern. But it can hardly be what is contemporary in contemporary religion which could command the slightest allegiance. For now we find the spectacle of a spiritual concern also trying to become a pure activity, and achieving little but absurdity… On the one hand, we find the universalistic tendency where each sect, confession, or denomination has lost confidence in its distinctive creed, and realizing that it is but one mode of religion, ashamed of its particularity, desires to become religion as such. “True” religion then from this standpoint is simply “having religion,” a religion which is indifferently Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, as well as Ethical Culture, Unitarianism, Christian Science and, so as to be utterly free of “prejudice,” Atheism as well. Or, on the other hand, sensing the absurdity of trying to speak a language which isn’t any particular language, religion reverts to its ancient roots and becomes conservative, fundamentalistic, the religion of “our fathers,” a religion of absolute faith in a Founder, Book, Church, or Tradition. Within this second tendency, enmeshed as it is with dogmas, beliefs, customs, and words of two or three thousand years ago, or the synthetic concoctions of yesterday, incapable of winnowing the wheat from the chaff for fear of dissolving into an indeterminate religiosity, a peculiar doctrine emerges, that of “two truths.” For now the critical examination of “human” reason is feared; there is the sacred truth, which must be believed in, assented to, to which one must be “committed,” versus a “secular” truth which is but practical, merely scientific, and of course merely human and relative. The former is holy, and touches everything essential; the latter is useful, but subject to suspension by the higher, sacred truth. One believes in sacred truth; one provesand demonstrates secular truth. Everyone has seen the result of this particular predicament.
Fundamentalistic religions pass imperceptibly and without the possibility of self-correction into the blindest of superstitions, the chief pattern of which is to see spiritual truths only as “miracles” in nature. Such a religion, since it cannot employ the demonstrable insights of reason except at its peril, has at its command no instrument whatsoever by which to distinguish the authentically spiritual from the childishly superstitious. Men are thought of as the “children” of God or, worse, of other men, denominated “priests “. If religion can use reason only to dissolve into a general religiosity, when it dismisses reason it tends to freeze into that impotence of the spirit called “commitment,” or “faith.” The meaning of symbols is identified with the symbol itself, and the more preposterous the result the more intensely it must be “believed.” Religion too in its contemporary forms is as dead as philosophy and art; for just as nothing is characteristic of the contemporary philosophic mind as its indifference to (380) the spirit, nothing is so characteristic of the contemporary religious mind as its indifference to both art and philosophy, and the resulting engorgement of an indigestible mass of unclarified and unclarifiable “beliefs.” What else could result from an attitude where reason is regarded as “merely human” or relative, and inferior to the authentic voice of God himself who must lack reason, and art is regarded as pious decor, at best capable of depicting allegorically stories and commitments fixed in advance and without the contribution of art? When will religion regard the contempt of reason and art as blasphemous?
In sum, then, contemporary western culture in its most characteristic manifestations presents us with the spectacle of various functions of the spirit seeking to become autonomous activities, technical, professional and separated from one another. The whole spirit is to be found in none of these activities, and eventually everyone at last becomes bored with them. There is, of course, a superficial activity in all three, and the statistics reveal an “increased interest” in them in the United States; but what figures could be more ambiguous in their meaning? For our part we find nothing significant or particularly valuable in frenetic efforts which express a distracted and bewildered spirit. In fact, it probably is the case that the more the spirit tries to divide itself, the more active it must become, the more frenzied, until it sinks at last into paralysis.
Now, to revert to our first considerations, the death of explicit culture has most important consequences. If the human spirit ‘must live in the medium of culture which it creates for itself, when that medium no longer can command honest allegiance, the spirit reverts into its own dark potential nothingness. If the spirit finds nothing of its genuine concern clarified and articulated in philosophy, what can it do but shun reason as such, look upon it as merely verbal, irrelevant, and logic chopping? When philosophy disappears as an effective clarification of ultimate human concerns, religion becomes anti-philosophical, and sinks into blind commitment; and art reverts to pure expression, which means either an expression of the sensuous or the inexpressive as such. In the absence of philosophy, the individual human spirit sinks back into a reliance upon the senses and the individual sciences for its light. When reason goes out, the senses and technical know how are always ready to take over; they at least can operate without the effort at self-creation. When religion becomes preposterous, the honest spirit finds its concern in the instinctual and the appetites. They too need no effort to sustain them, and can provide a facsimile of life. When art no longer presents us with the image of the spirit, the spirit sinks hack into the unexpressed; art becomes mere art, and expression or objectification is regarded as trivial. The inner life of the spirit is thought to be higher than its overt expressed life; and that inner life, distrusting (381) expression as falsification, becomes mute and eventually shrinks to nothing. When culture becomes inauthentic the spirit reverts to the irrational, instinctual, dark and mute; this is as close to death as the spirit can come.
Providing there is any truth in all of this, the next question is what is to be done? But before exploring our dreams, we should be well aware of our limits. A living and authentic culture is not the product of individuals nor can it be planned in advance, particularly on the basis of a dead culture; nor when it emerges, will it take any form necessarily recognizable to us today. There can be no question therefore of dictating where the free and concerned human spirit shall go. Nor of offering concrete suggestions, or attempting to create a new culture tomorrow. But perhaps it is not wholly foolish if we let our dreams wander a bit to explore at least some directions, counter to those embodied in our present culture. For while the communal spirit does not operate and should not operate by technical planning, neither is it an instinctual growth like that of coral colonies. It is in the last analysis consciousness. And consciousness has the distinctive property of wishing to envisage its end, of taking thought of its goal while it acts. It is precisely the intent of contemporary culture which we find empty; it does admirably what it sets out to do, but is its aim anything of value?
The first remark then is negative. There is nothing viable in the present tendency toward the professionalization and isolation of spiritual functions. They dry up and become meaningless motions. Science in some of its problems can and must be specialized. But philosophy, religion, and art are not activities directed to specific finite aims but rather expressions of what is or should be a whole spirit. They are nothing but various functions of what is itself one. But this negative remark is insufficient.
Is the solution then to be found in an increasingly popular suggestion among educators, that these disciplines must be added to one another? But how can disciplines which are set up as separate be fructified by addition? Joint courses or combined curricula are mere shams if what are joined are themselves unjoinable. And, in addition, what profit is contemporary art to derive from contemporary philosophy or religion? None as I see it. And so with the other combinations of these disciplines. The matter lies deeper than this, and life is not generated by the addition of dead ingredients.
Nor is anything to be sought in revivals of the past, as I mentioned earlier. To revive the past is impossible and undesirable; even if it could be “revived” it carries within itself its own dialectic; we should be (382) reverting to a simpler and happier age only to run through the course of history a second time, with minor variants. In short, there was an inner reason for our present predicament; the disease is not to be cured by reverting to an earlier phase. But more importantly, no living spirit can imitate anything; its life is precisely its creativity. Hence everything properly called “neo-,” “neo-conservatism,” “neo-liberalism,” “neo-thomism,” “neo-realism,” “neo-symbolism,” “neo-primitivism,” or “neo-whateverism” must be excluded from our attention.
But similarly, merely to notice the schizophrenia in the modern spirit is negative and insufficient. Nor will the “interrelation” of functions themselves be any new direction. To relate three functions of the spirit to one another may be a necessary condition for health but the substance is still lacking from our analysis just as it is from contemporary culture itself. If the functions can be defined as concern, clarity, and expression, joining them together still omits any mention of their proper reality: what is it that is to be clarified, with which the human spirit is concerned, and which must be expressed? What is the substance of the human spirit? Can the question of culture receive any answer whatsoever which ignores this most difficult of all questions? And while it is true obviously that the spirit can take an interest in anything whatsoever, still those casual and miscellaneous interests can not define its ultimate intent.
Now it is precisely this living substance which must be created. But, certain general things might be said in advance, for what could the substance be but the life of the spirit itself? In short, the human spirit is and must be concerned with itself and its life. Now this formula may seem too anthropocentric until it is realized that when the spirit is concerned with its own life it is also concerned with the absolute context of that life. There is no such thing as “merely human” life; life is precisely human to the extent that it seeks to relate itself to that which is not merely human but to what it can honestly regard as ultimate. And so the human spirit is concerned with its relation to what it sees as ultimate. And what if it sees nothing as ultimate? Then also that is its ultimate vision, and constitutes the absolute sense it makes of its life. Thus, with Hegel, it can be said that the human spirit is precisely that effort to clarify and express its ultimate concern, which concern is precisely the sense it can make of itself. And therefore human culture is an attempt to make sense out of its concrete historical life, a sense which is lucid, ultimate, and expressed. Now the sense need not be and never is in any great culture a flattering of our desires or a consolation for whining, meanings which are sought only in the decay of culture. But ultimate sense it must be, if philosophy, religion, and art, and with them individual human lives, are not to relapse into the senseless.
My dream then is for a culture which again seeks to make ultimate (383) sense out of the human spirit and its concern with an ultimate context. This would imply a philosophy which gave less attention to symbolic reformulations and would-be “technical problems” such as the problem of induction, the external world, other minds, sense-data, etc., but sought to clarify the concerns of the spirit. It would imply a religious sense which did not despise reason or did not harden itself within a commitment but could see the spirit in what it now regards as the “secular.” And finally an art which expressed not expression itself but the image of the human spirit. Each of these functions can make indispensable contributions; but only when each works with its eyes on the others and also on their common substantial aim.
And it is here we must stop; for it is precisely the content of this new substance which can not be anticipated. It is exactly this future sense of reality which must be created, and created from deeper dimensions of the spirit than the current professionalized activities now envisage. In a word, the task as it appears now is for culture to create a new sense of reality within which we can live without either pretense or suffocation.