A cold look at white heat

After Progress
December 17, 1999

In his speech to this year's Labour Party conference, Tony Blair contrasted the modernising programme of his government with the "dark forces of conservatism". He invited us all to join in the onward march of scientific reason towards the bright dawn of the new millennium. I remember wondering why the speech struck me as so old-fashioned. Was it the memory of 1960s newsreels on Harold Wilson's "white heat of technology"?

Anthony O'Hear, director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy and the author of After Progress: Finding the Old Way Forward , reminds us that the rhetoric of progress and rationalism is considerably older. Although it reached its high point during the 18th century, it is in fact a distortion of pinot religious intuitions. Plato and Aristotle agreed that the supreme form of human life was the exercise of rationality in the contemplation of divine, eternal truths.

But, despite their emphasis on rationality, the Greeks had no notion of linear progress and were more inclined to look back to a golden age or adopt a cyclical model. The western notion of linear progress has its origins in Hebrew messianism. Since leaving Egypt, the Israelites focused on the notion of the Promised Land, but could never quite make up their minds whether the New Jerusalem was for this world or the next.

The merging of Greek rationalism with the Hebrew notion of messianic progress is the product of our Christian heritage. For many centuries constrained by the authority of the Catholic church, it took the Reformation and Enlightenment to liberate the notion from the restraints of tradition.

O'Hear picks up the modern narrative with Francis Bacon's conscious efforts to purge himself of the detritus of custom, language and tradition.Two chapters are devoted to the Enlightenment and the counter-Enlightenment (focusing on his hero, Edmund Burke).

I am puzzled by O'Hear's decision to deal with Darwin, Marx and Freud together, as this seemed to be more than just chronology. Although the three writers are unified by their distinction between infrastructure and (epiphenomenal) superstructure, O'Hear might have noted that Darwin's conclusions are very different. For Marx, the answer to false consciousness was to reconstruct society and the economy on the basis of rational scientific planning; for Freud, the answer was a psychoanalytic restructuring. Both theories were truly progressive in the Enlightenment sense. However, Darwinism is an ecological theory; there is no way to stand outside the system and take up a God's-eye view. Nature does not design or plan, and a society modelled on Darwinian lines would involve no planning at all.

Despite O'Hear's well-known work in the philosophy of science, one of the surprises of the book is a residual anti-scientism, especially as some work in neurology and psychology could be interpreted as supporting his polemic. Karl Popper formulated his methodological scepticism - science can only falsify, never prove - alongside his observations on the unanticipated consequences of social action.

Recent experiments in cognitive psychology have confirmed Michael Oakeshott's view that human beings are not primarily rational, or even conscious. The concept of the unitary human agent has largely been replaced by a gaggle of sub-personal micro-agents - Daniel Dennett's "army of idiots". Cognitive psychologists have still to devise an experiment to find out exactly what consciousness is for and how it could have evolved. If this is true, and humans function largely on non-conscious habitual patterns, then "the forces of conservatism" are simply the natural state of human affairs.

O'Hear devotes a longish section to Kant's problem of modernity: how to account for our sense of freedom, rationality and personal agency in a deterministic Newtonian universe. Kant's answer was to draw a distinction between the physical world and the spiritual "kingdom of ends". As human beings are also inhabitants of the latter, we are capable of acting as autonomous moral agents, beyond the demands and constraints of our ordinary physical and psychological make-up. According to such a dualist view, pure rationality transcends embodiment.

It is true that Kant wavers between the view that the transcendental subject is merely a logical necessity and the view that it is a distinct noumenal thing (in the tradition of Descartes). Despite this ambiguity, O'Hear argues that Kant's transcendental philosophy has had profound consequences for ethics and political thought and has served to underwrite the dominant western model of rationality.

However, neurology is developing a competing model. Antonio Damasio has written two influential books on the connection between rationality, emotion and neuro-

pathology. Phineas Gage, a railway worker, suffered a catastrophic brain lesion that resulted in a loss of rationality and social empathy, even though in every other respect he was unharmed. Descartes's (and Kant's) error, according to Damasio, was to separate our rational souls from their physical and social context. Damasio has brought rationality down from the Platonic realm to embodied, culture-specific behaviour, no longer in a position to act as a "God's eye" arbiter for the onward march of civilisation.

O'Hear's analysis is part of a burgeoning tradition of Anglo-Saxon Jeremiahs and Cassandras. But even if we grant O'Hear his diagnosis, what about the prognosis? His subtitle reveals his own conservative agenda, but what remains to be conserved? The Enlightenment project has been running for about 300 years, and O'Hear struggles to find a single redeeming feature in modern culture. Clearly it would take a serious revolution to "find the old way forward". Does O'Hear have anything to offer apart from nostalgia, or is he secretly hoping that we may find our own Khomeini, Franco or Pinochet to reinstate the ancien régime ? Two of the philosophers that he admires - Plato and Nietzsche - have historical associations with totalitarian political agendas.

In Rationalism in Politics , Oakeshott argued that traditional High Toryism can work only in times of social stability (which leaves out all of this century). O'Hear is about 100 years too late with his claim that "nothing, nothing is to be done". Margaret Thatcher agreed with Oakeshott: it would take a sustained counter-revolution to reverse the incremental ratchet of socialism and collectivism. Given her love of freedom (and the stability of our democratic institutions), the only tool left in her handbag was the "invisible hand" of the market.

One could make a reasonable argument for a second Thatcher revolution to extend the freedoms we enjoy in the economy to other areas of social life. But such a policy would be deeply unpopular as, on the whole, inhabitants of affluent societies are content with their lot, despite the protestations of aesthetes and ascetics such as O'Hear. The right of the state to intrude into all aspects of life is now deeply ingrained in establishment thinking. What is conservatism if not the defence of the establishment? Whenever there is new regulation in the wake of a food scare or abuse scandal, politicians are only responding to the cry "something must be done" from the public and the campaigning media. If the discontents of civilisation were to increase, we would probably go for the totalitarian option: as John Charmley puts it, "people are only too willing to exchange freedom for bread and circuses". Who cares about liberty so long as the trains run on time?

In any event, echoing the theme of his earlier book, Beyond Evolution, O'Hear claims that libertarian, social Darwinist and Thatcherite approaches are part of the problem - "the free market and its ambitions are as much products of the Enlightenment as socialism". He draws our attention to the historical association of Darwinism with eugenics and other attempts to optimise society. As Michael Ruse has pointed out, the narrative of Darwinian evolution has long been interwoven with the western rhetoric of progress, which O'Hear has so effectively criticised. But the second wave of evolutionary thinking has a more modest agenda: to demolish the tabula rasa dogma of the "standard social science model" by revealing the constraints imposed by biology.

A critique of progress will serve no value unless it leads to some sort of practical agenda. It is no use railing about Plato's prisoners in the cave or de Tocqueville's prediction of liberal democracies populated by infantilised citizens. O'Hear shares Oakeshott's scepticism over "the claims of politics" and concludes that the problem of modernity is fundamentally religious - material values have replaced spiritual ones. In Pascal's words, modern man has lost the ability to stay quietly in his own room.

O'Hear is rather vague as to how we might overcome Pascal's problem. He agrees with Aldous Huxley that all the great world religions partake of the "perennial wisdom". But it remains the case that Christianity has failed to grip the contemporary imagination - indeed, although he is the author of Introducing Jesus , O'Hear confesses elsewhere that he does not believe in Christian revelation. He is equally dismissive of New Age "pick and mix" alternatives, although he thinks that insights from the "New Mysterians" in the field of consciousness studies might help to deflate the reductive and hubristic agenda of scientism.

We live in profoundly unintellectual times: our MPs seem to have little grasp of historical events, let alone such arcane topics as the history of political thought. Ted Honderich has proposed that the study of political thought should begin with Hobbes, the first philosopher of modernity. This advice has largely been heeded in our modern universities, with the study of the classics relegated to the footnotes of dusty and obscure journals. Even though the topic of this book is the crisis of modernity, O'Hear argues convincingly that we will only understand the decline of our civilisation in the context of its classical origins. Here he allies himself with a tradition of similar narratives, from Gibbon through Spengler to Sorokin.

The book is concise, jargon free and should be required reading for all members of Parliament.

Keith Sutherland is publisher, History of Political Thought and Polis: The Journal of the Society for the Study of Greek Political Thought .


After Progress: Finding the Old Way Forward

Author - Anthony O'Hear
ISBN - 0 7475 4386 0
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Price - £14.99
Pages - 0

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