Tuesday, September 21, 2004


Climates of opinion

[FAIR WARNING: Pedantic rambling ahead. Proceed at your own risk.]

You rarely find historians these days talking at length about "intellectual climates," but they used to be quite comfortable talking about "climates of opinion." In his 1932 book, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, Carl Becker's first chapter took its title from the phrase. The phrase itself, according to Becker, was of seventeenth-century origin. But he was glad to see that it was being "restored to circulation" by historians of ideas.

To give an example of what he meant by a "climate of opinion," Becker used this thought experiment: Suppose, he told his readers, that you suddenly found yourself face-to-face with a resuscitated Dante or Thomas Aquinas. Imagine trying to argue with them, Becker said, about some (then) contemporary issue like the viability of the League of Nations. Dante and Aquinas would doubtlessly make arguments for the League premised on a kind of Christian universalism or on the idea of "natural law." Many of these arguments would have little purchase, though, for twentieth-century interlocutors. The problem would not be that Aquinas and Dante were stupid or their arguments formally invalid; the problem would be that their worldviews are not easily compatible with modern "climates of opinion." As Becker puts it,
Whether arguments command assent or not depends less upon the logic that conveys them than upon the climate of opinion in which they are sustained. What renders Dante's argument or St. Thomas' definition meaningless to us is not bad logic or want of intelligence, but the medieval climate of opinion--those instinctively held preconceptions in the broad sense, that Weltanschauung or world pattern--which imposed upon Dante and St. Thomas a peculiar use of the intelligence and a special type of logic. To understand why we cannot easily follow Dante or St. Thomas it is necessary to understand (as well as may be) the nature of this climate of opinion. (p. 5)
Among recent generations of professional historians, this kind of talk has been fading into obsolescence. The phrase "climates of opinion" itself is now exceedingly rare. But I'm not sure why we can't use the metaphor of "climates" to talk about intellectual formations. And sometimes, while writing about commonly held ideas in a culture, "climates" is the word in my toolbox that I find myself wanting to reach for. Why can't I pick it up?

Well, one reason is that the metaphor itself is faulty. It implies that opinions can be disembodied, that intellectual "worldviews" somehow float above the heads of historical actors like a fog or a layer of ozone. It implies, too, that we can extrapolate the "climate" of an entire period in history merely from the writings of especially visible thinkers like Thomas Aquinas or the eighteenth-century philosophes--this is the "dead white men" problem of traditional intellectual history. The successive arrivals of social and cultural history have rightly cast doubt on the idea that we can infer things about an era's "world pattern" from the writings of a few elites. Finally, historians today probably feel that the climatological metaphor is too structuralist and naturalistic. You can't change the weather, after all, and speaking of ideas as a "climate" makes it seem as though culture can be objectified and made independent of human agency.

Instead of talking about intellectual "climates," most intellectual historians now talk about "discourses," a terminological substitution that has at least two virtues. The metaphor is more modest; rather than proposing a metanarrative about the "world pattern" of an age, it can be used in smaller narratives about the patterns of particular intellectual communities. And at the same time that "discourse" is more modest, it also feels less constraining: it metaphorically gives individual thinkers more control over the shape of their ideas.

Let me elaborate on and obfuscate what I mean. First, talking about "discourse" forces historians to specify a particular community of intellectuals as their subject, instead of talking abstractly about an epochal Weltanschauung. If you're going to be talking about the discourse of elite intellectuals, you say that up front, instead of concealing the sleight of hand that turns the ideas of a few into a "world pattern."

Secondly, "discourse" (especially in the sense meant by French poststructuralist thinkers) conveys something of the constraints placed on thinkers by shared presumptions, while at the same time conveying something of the creativity with which thinkers can interrogate those presumptions. "Climates of opinion," one could argue, was all structure and no play.

Yet lately I've been thinking that "discourse" faces some of the same metaphorical pitfalls that once vexed "climates of opinion." Like all metaphors, its application has limitations.

For example, in its literal meaning, a "discourse" is a conversation--a conversation between members of an intellectual community. But intellectual historians often use the word "discourse" without carefully drawing lines of connection between every interlocutor in that conversation. When I speak of the discourse of "secularism" in the Enlightenment, for instance, do I need to demonstrate that every time a thinker voiced secular ideas, they were doing so in conversation with another thinker? Surely what I want to say, instead, is that secular ideas were ready at hand to Enlightenment intellectuals, that they formed the preconditions for conversation between certain intellectuals rather than always being part of the conversation itself.

And of course, this is often what historians mean when they use the word "discourse." By "discourse," they mean to refer to the presuppositions, the things that could be taken for granted, in conversations between certain thinkers. But in that case, does "discourse" (as a metaphor) really improve on Becker's use of "climates" to refer to the "instinctively held preconceptions" that certain communities shared?

"But don't forget," you might say, "the other problem with the climates metaphor." And I haven't; the real problem with Becker might not be that he spoke of "preconceptions" held in common by intellectuals. The real problem is that he generalized from these preconceptions to speak of the shared beliefs of an entire age. Now, personally, I have my doubts whether Becker really thought any such thing. There was a looseness in his language, granted, but there is a looseness in all metaphors. Besides, historians who would fault "climates of opinion" as an elitist metaphor often do the same kind of generalization with the word "discourse." We talk freely about discourses of race, discourses of gender, discourses of nationalism, etc. etc., without bothering every time to specify the "interlocutors" in those discourses.

By point is that as a metaphor for "culture" or "opinion," "discourse" has flaws of its own that are not wholly dissimilar from the flaws that led to the abandonment of "climates." And other metaphors of culture that are used more frequently, like Clifford Geertz's idea of culture as a "web" has problems too. The most important problem with the "web" metaphor--which suggests that "man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun," in Geertz's words--is that it too ignores differentials in power between elite and non-elite thinkers. Culture is spun, indeed, but some people do more of the spinning, while others spend most of their time being suspended in those webs. And as I think Isaiah Berlin said (maybe Jason knows where), freedom for the spider is death for the fly.

All of which is a much too long way of saying, why can't I use "climate of opinion"? Why can't I refer to the fact that some ideas are sort of like the air you breathe? You didn't come up with the ideas; they were there before you; they do surround you in some ways, and you do tend to take them for granted, just like you take for granted that you just took a breath. This doesn't mean you don't have any control over the ideas around you, or that you can't not take them for granted. When I just referred to your taking a breath, you probably thought about your breathing. And if you didn't before, surely you are now. In the same way, we can think deliberately about the climates of opinion around us. We can even, to follow the metaphor a little further, exercise the freedom to hold our breath. But it is somewhat accurate to say that you can't hold your breath forever. There are certain ideas in your head that you probably can't willfully get rid of without the help of amnesia or brain damage.

Yes, the metaphor breaks down. But my point is that all metaphors do. And sometimes it's better to use ones that we know break down, because their breaking down tells us something interesting about the phenomenon we are trying to talk about.

I'll leave you with a final thought (if you haven't left me already). Perhaps "climates of opinion" are safer to use now that we have a different understanding of climate than historians of Becker did. Becker used "climate" as a metaphor because he wanted to refer to relatively stable patterns of thought. But the more we learn about climate (notice, no quotes), the more we discover how volatile and unstable it can be. Witness this hurricane season for instance. If we realize that climates are not unchanging structures, then why are we still afraid to talk about "climates of opinion"?

In a famous essay, for instance, Roger Chartier once took issue with the various metaphors that historian Robert Darnton used to interpret certain bizarre episodes of French culture. Darnton variously speaks of culture as "shared, like the air we breathe," as webs (since he was influenced by teaching at Princeton with Geertz), and as a system of symbols or a discourse. Chartier thinks the problem with all of these metaphors is that they make cultural meanings too stable. For this and other reasons, he writes that "metaphorical use of the vocabulary of linguistics" to describe culture "comports a certain danger." And "it seems risky," he writes, "to claim that symbols are 'shared, like the air we breathe.' Quite to the contrary, their significations are unstable, mobile, equivocal."

But the "air" is also unstable and mobile and unpredictable. So what's wrong with using it as a metaphor? Talking about "climates of opinion" does not prohibit us from speaking of "climate change," or "hurricanes of opinion." On the contrary, speaking of "intellectual climates" might lend itself to talking about an "ecology of thought," in which we study both the stable environment of a "thinking organism" (intellectual) and its own impact on that ecosystem. Using Becker's metaphor in this kind of way might make him roll in his grave, but I am certain there are plenty of things about contemporary historiography that have him doing jumping jacks already.

P.S. Siris has some thoughts on this post. Alas for the fact that Blogger does not support Trackback, and for the fact that I am too lazy to implement Haloscan.

Collective Improvisation:
six years on...don't even know if you are there...but loved your pedantic ramble!

I haven't got much time because I am in the middle of my own discourse in which I am asserting that the climate of opinion should inform policy review...

...but I was particularly moved to ask whether you have considered your argument in terms of Sheldrake's 'Morphic Field Theory'?


Cocoa Rose

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