Home » On the “Culture War” and Formal Causality

The term kulturkampf, literally “culture struggle”, has long-since been translated into English as “culture war”.  I have no desire to participate in a “culture war”.  Indeed, as I will argue here, the very notion of the “culture war” is not only misguided but harmful.  But as someone living within a culture, however, I do believe it is inevitable that I and everyone else—willingly or not, consciously or not—everyone does participate in the struggle over culture.

Semantics of War and Struggle

Why this “quibbling over semantics”?  Before I get to the semantics themselves, I have to say that I have never accepted as legitimate the objection that one is quibbling over semantics.  Words are important.  They signify concepts, and concepts are that on the basis of which all human history (all that is truly human, that is) has unfolded.  If you do not believe words are important, there seems to be no reason for you to read this—or anything.  In fact, the objection of “quibbling over semantics” presumes a nominalist or at least idealist divorce between cognitive activity and things independent of cognitive activity; but pursuing that question would take us far off track.

Returning therefore to the semantics of “struggle” and “war”: I protest the latter term because it suggests an entirely inapt metaphor.  War, to be waged justly, must have a reasonable expectation of victory.  One adopts violent means out of necessity: the need, namely, to produce or restore an orderly way of life that allows human beings to pursue their natural and fitting goods.  War should be irregular.  And before anyone thinks about bringing it up, let me say that there is an entirely different way in which the concept of “spiritual warfare” or “spiritual combat” must be understood, which would take us into a discussion well outside the boundaries of what I am here to discuss today; but which, succinctly, may be presented by saying that there are conditions for decisive victory in matters of the spiritual soul of the human being.  Not so in matters of culture, which is, by nature, an intrinsically temporally-unfolding suprasubjective reality constituted through a pattern of relations which attains a new foundation in every human being who is born and reared within a society of other human beings.  Or to put this in other, simpler words, culture is an ever-present and ­ever-developing reality which can only exist through the exchanges human beings have with and towards one another.  It is never final, because we human beings, as existing on earth, are not final; we, by nature, are creatures that change both over the course of our individual lives and over the course of generations.  So long as humans have freedom of thought and will, culture may change.

What’s Wrong with the World?

Allow me an anecdote.  When I taught ethics at the Wentworth Institute of Technology, a secular school in Boston, Massachusetts, I started each semester by giving the students a notecard on which to write their names, email addresses, a hobby or interest, and—in a single sentence or less—something they believe to be wrong with the world today, with the promise that I’d give my own answer later in the semester.  Their answers ranged from the very thoughtful to the kind one might expect in a caricature of a beauty pageant.  Most were focused on what could be called systematic societal issues: poverty, inequality, abuse of power, ideologies, a lack of charity or honesty among people as a whole, and so on and so forth.  Throughout the semester, we read a variety of thinkers influential in ethics: David Hume, J.L. Mackie, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, John Rawls, Philippa Foot, Marilyn Frye, and so on.  Each, in some way, provides a “system” for ethics either as a whole or with regard to some specific problems: rules or sets of principles which, if followed, are promised to improve society.  They might be rather loose rules or principles, or rather strict ones—but all had in mind the same goal, despite the significant differences in their means.  Mind you, I was required to provide a survey course covering a broad range of thinkers and theories—ideally, I would have focused the course more intently on better thinkers, but the conditions of my employment were non-negotiable.  Regardless, being required to teach a wide range of theories and thinkers, I spent most of the semester showing how these proposed systems have intrinsic and unavoidable flaws, no matter how strictly observed; how they fail in other words, how they do not provide us a secure and ethical society, and how they may be overcome or abused.  Towards the end of the semester, we would read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics—after the first book of which, I would read their answers as to what’s wrong with the world back to them.  They would remember my promise, and that it was my turn. 

“What’s wrong with the world?” I asked myself, out loud, before them.  “Me,” I would answer; “I am.”

You might recognize this answer from a legend about Chesterton—I freely admit that I lifted it.  But it is, I believe, a good teaching tool: yes, there are many systematic problems with our country, our world, our politics, and our culture.  I cannot control any of those problems.  I can try to change them, but I cannot control them; for all are dependent upon millions of wills not my own.  I am, by nature, in control only of myself and even that only to a limited degree (i.e., I cannot will myself to be something I naturally am not—as I cannot will myself to be a top-tier athlete—maybe a decent one, but genetically that has always been out of my grasp—nor can someone born a man will himself to become a female, and so on).  The circumstances into which we all are born are beyond our control.  What is in our control is our capacity for virtue, the decisions and choices that we as individuals make.  Naturally, this extends into those with whom we have close relations: our individuality is only relative, and we are ourselves constituted largely through the relations we have with others.  But the faculty of the will extends efficaciously only to the self.  We may influence others through a kind of formal causality—objective or specifying causality, to be precise, which is just what I was attempting to do with those students, showing them the truth through a careful, painful, difficult process, one class session, one reading, one assignment, one Socratic hour at a time—but we cannot control their wills.  We can only attempt to specify objects for their thinking, propose to them what we believe is true, and strive to show them—most especially through how we live ourselves—the truth of the good, and thus that it is desirable.

Struggle and Habit

It in this inability to control others and the difficulty of showing the truth in which the struggle over culture consists.  It is perennial; it occurs again and anew with each individual human being who grows up in this or any other society.  Believing that ever there could occur a society where the demonstration of what is true is not difficult, where the struggle for it does not recur on a daily basis, is a fantasy which obscures the truth of the matter.  There are no shortcuts: the effect of specifying formal causality does not and cannot occur on a cultural scale through the impositions of force.  It is a gradual process of developing habits and requires careful and constant attention.  I had relatively decent success, teaching my ethics course, in persuading students to think that Aristotle was a very good starting point, to recognize that claim as true, in other words: but only because they were small classes of no more than 22 students.  (I doubt the effects were lasting, unfortunately—a single isolated course with students exposed to little else of similar thinking.  But I may hope that their thinking has remained on the track set down by the course, given the intensity of our discussions.)  That is not to say a larger class could not have been likewise incipiently persuaded; but affecting such a first step towards persuasion among most of a large crowd would likely have been only superficial, a fleeting adherence born not of intellectual conviction but birthed merely through winning the moment—through presenting them a fictionalized, fantastic version of Aristotle: the bold, counter-cultural Stagirite who stands athwart modernity, etc., etc.

In the age of mass media, and especially the internet, where any message has the potential to reach masses of people, such reductive approaches possess a seductive allure—especially if we conceive of the cultural struggle as being a war.  We see this video, or that trend, or this or that celebrity spreading a false message; we see their YouTube hit counters ticking over into hundreds of thousands, millions, hundreds of millions of views; this odious Tweet (Twixt?) garnering countless likes and retweets, that Facebook post being shared over and over again; misinformation being spread far and wide; and we feel that we must combat these numbers with our own.  Alarms blare in our mind and we hear the shouts of: “They are beating us!  They are winning!  We are losing!”  They are gashing us; so we must, we think, respond in kind.  We fashion exaggerated narratives, pseudo-historical accounts—we put on airs of gnosticism, of being the elect, being “those who know”. 

Pyrrhic Wars of Formal Causality

But the battlefield of those who wage war on the truth is fantasy.  To engage them in combat is to step on to that battlefield; to have to use their weapons, weapons which rely upon a kind of seduction into a way of living rather than understanding the truth about the good—weapons which aim at the lower rather than higher faculties of the human being.  This would be to abuse the influence of objective causality. 

I do not mean to suggest that fiction and fantasy cannot be put to good use.  They can be powerful means for telling stories which elucidate truths better than can be done by any philosophy.  But with the degradation of good philosophical thinking the fantastic loses its proper context of significance.  For a right formation of the moral imagination there must also be the claritas of good intellectual judgment: not only that there may be produced good works of creative fiction but that their interpretation might be guided correctly.  To gain these two goods of intellectual correctness and imaginative rectitude proves not a matter of battle, but of struggle.  It is lived by each of us individually and realized culturally in our being with one another.  Approached as a war, you may “win” a battle here or there—changing a school curriculum, passing a law, discrediting a movie or television show or speaker—but fought as battles, they are inevitable pyrrhic, costing us more than they gain.

An older version of this is available in audio form here:

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