Friday, September 24, 2004

Climates and Discourses

This is my 300th post at Siris! It's amazing how time flies.

Ralph Luker at Cliopatria pointed out an excellent post by Caleb McDaniel at Mode for Caleb called Climates of Opinions, on the metaphors used in intellectual history. He compares 'climates of opinion' with 'discourses', and opts for the former. I don't have much of an opinion on the particular metaphors involved, but I do have an argument for a condition that any such metaphor should meet. We can start by considering the thought experiment from Carl Becker used to introduce the phrase 'climates of opinion'. In Caleb's words:

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."

The problem I have with the Becker experiment is that I'm not so clear on the issue of compatibility. To be sure, the worldviews of Aquinas or Dante are not compatible with many of the worldviews of the 20th century; but neither were they compatible with many of the worldviews of the 13th and 14th centuries, either. And they are compatible with some of the worldviews. For instance, there was a revival of Thomists in the 20th century; one of them, Jacques Maritain, was, if I understand rightly, an influence in bringing about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Maritain had been a major player as the French delegate on the commission that drafted the charter for UNESCO, and had to face the problem of coming to agreement in a pluralistic atmosphere. He dealt with the problem through Thomistic arguments on the natural law, which allow for various sorts of distinctions in how we know it. When the Declaration was drafted, that commission (Maritain was, if I remember correctly, also the French delegate to that commission) took the same approach that had been advocated by Maritain for UNESCO.

To return to the point (yes, I do return to the point occasionally), Becker's thought experiment seems to fail, in that when we look at it more closely, it (usually) gives us no clear notion of anything that could be called a historical climate of opinion. On the other hand, there does seem to be something to it; it's not as if just anyone can pick up even a good translation of Aquinas and feel completely at home. I think the problem with Becker's thought experiment is perhaps merely that it suggests sharper barriers than usually exist. I wouldn't say than can ever exist, because one could perhaps succeed with a Becker thought experiment if we substitute periods for contemporary cultures long isolated from each other. But in general barriers are not quite so difficult to overcome; as can be seen in the fact that, rather amazingly, we are in a constant process of overcoming them. The metaphor, then, needs to allow for these sorts of complications.

None of this, of course, causes problems for the 'climate of opinion' metaphor; as Caleb notes, it's a metaphor that actually allows for quite a bit of complication. What in our normal experience of the world, after all, is more complicated than the weather?

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