Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Thought in the European Core

Re Hughes Consciousness and Society, The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930, copyrighted in 1958. 

On page 12 Hughes writes, “it is now time to speak of . . . the ‘unit of historical study’—to use “Toynbee’s phrase [which] is neither world-wide nor national.  Nor is it that undefined entity, whose boundaries are never clear but in whose spiritual reality most of us believe, which we call Western civilization.  Nor, finally, is it simply Europe.  The geographical area of study is Europe in the narrower sense – the original ‘heartland’ of Western society: France, Germany (including Austria), and Italy.

“Why precisely this area?  Initially it may be argued that from the Empire of Charlemagne to the present six-nation community of ‘Little Europe,’ an area approximating the one with which I am dealing has had a more intense European consciousness, a more identifiable sense of common culture and common interests, than characterized the countries on the Western European periphery, Scandinavia, the Iberian Peninsula, the British isles – these have always seemed less self-consciously European than the states of the Continental Core.”

“In the course of the study I hope to establish that it was Germans and Austrians and French and Italian – rather than Englishmen or Americans or Russians – who in general provided the fund of ideas that has come to seem most characteristic of our own time. . . .”


I want to draw a distinction between the Intellectuals of Britain and America and those of the nation’s Hughes has taken up.  Several hypotheses occurred to me, but I managed to poke holes in all of them.  What comes most forcefully to mind is that Pacifism was a potent force in Britain and Isolationism in the U.S.  Both were negative forces detracting from our Anglo-American ability to counter the more forceful thoughts arising from France, Germany, Austria and Italy.  We Anglo-Americans were an intellectual emptiness which Hughes’ Europe plunged two World Wars into. 

Are we doing any better today, or does Europe still do our thinking for us?  Someone might object that Anglo-American thought is the most potent force in the world today, but not in the Hughes sense.  We tend not to take France seriously and have in effect taken serious weapons away from Germany, Austria and Italy and that has been our substitute for thought.  Meanwhile, Germany and France are still busily thinking, although who is doing the more serious thinking is in doubt.  I read an interesting discussion which in effected argued that France’s greatest modern thinkers derived their thoughts from German predecessors (French Philosophy of the Sixties by Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut).

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