CONTINENTAL THOUGHT

THIS JUST IN: The Atlantic may not be shrinking

For a number of years doubts have been cast on the existence of the Atlantic Ocean. In a reversal of standard tectonics, many in North America and some in Europe now believe that continents are converging. A specific version of this tendency is the assumption often heard that economic and cultural phenomena are leading to a sort of lopsided convergence. Lopsided because in this view of things America is not going anywhere, while contemporary Europe is swimming as fast as it can to get to the other side.

The argument usually goes that while European frills are certainly nice as long as they can be afforded, everyone knows that sooner or later one does have to modernize, and that all liberal capitalism everywhere modernizes or progresses according to a blueprint stored somewhere in a vault labeled G8. This geo-economic law is often thought to be as immutable as any in science, and although the op-ed experts who purvey the law rarely stop to define ’modern’ or ’progress’, and although they are often the same ones to highlight the stumbling of American society along the Path, rarely do they question the one-path assumption. The blueprint comes with its own yardstick, efficiency, and what’s more its own special definition of efficiency, which is as simple as quantity-over-time. Other yardsticks include "performance", which means outdoing oneself continually, and "excellence" which is outdoing as many others as possible. (Or is it the other way around...?)

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It will happen here next

In Europe there is a whole industry of pundits and practitioners who believe in convergence and see it as salvation for their cobwebbed continent. They sing a variety of tunes, from touting US-style economic ideology or a US multicultural model of integration to geo-political praise for what they see as a US defense of freedom abroad. In a book entitled L’Europe et l’Amérique au Seuil du XXIe siècle ("Europe and America at the Edge of the 21st Century"), well-known Atlanticist (the paradoxical term for those who see it as disappearing) Laurent Cohen-Tanugi quotes disapprovingly former French foreign affairs minister Hubert Vedrine when he observes that "perhaps it’s about time that we acknowledge that yes Europe and America are cousins, but that within this broad community of values, Europeans have their own conception of human and social relations and of openness to the world." Cohen-Tanugi glosses this text with a scornful reference to "l’idéntité Européenne" as a "rejection of any notion of a euro-atlantic ensemble or civilization or sphere...". The title alone of former prime minister Edouard Balladur’s recent (2007) book tells the whole thesis: In Favor of an Occidental Union between Europe and the United States.

The economic version is a faith in the great machine, as professed by a recent guest opiner in Le Monde: "Liberal capitalism has sponsored (not without crisis) the most prodigious technical, economic and social development in history... and it is undoubtedly more capable than any other system of repairing ecological damages". Or the umpteenth Reform proposal in the France of Nicolas Sarkozy, by apprentice reformers who quote Tony Blair and, like their hero, are "just interested in what will work", backpedaling from the shifting sands of politics and seeking a non-ideological high road to "Unfettering Growth", the name of a recent Commission whose head, Jacques Attali, reports "working with one simple idea in mind: finding what works in order to avoid France’s decline". (Read further for reasons why "what will work" might not work.)

Obviously, convergence to this standard will cause a deep cut in those humanistic or socialized "frills" that the average atlanticist associates with behavior suitable to La Fontaine’s grasshopper. The reality check that looms over the convergence discourse is even felt by those who are not supporters of the blueprint or even maybe aware that one exists. For as long as doubt has been cast on the reality of the Atlantic, or at least since the dawn of post-oil-shock realeconomik when the neo-geo-economic TINA principle was discovered in Washington and London (There Is No Alternative), people on the street in Europe have been telling admiring visitors from the New World: "just you wait and see, it’s disappearing here too". ’It’ in this expression standing variously for mealtime conversation, the work/life distinction, free-range chickens, social capital, culture budgets, health care for low earners, public transportation, non-chain restaurants or the family farm, to name a few of the referents in this typical conversation.

Inevitability is a big part of the Law of Lopsided Convergence. A belief in inevitability, the end of (European) history as it were, helps observers ignore the fact that on a regular basis when Europeans are either polled or go to the polls they stubbornly continue to chose to be taxed and publicly served rather than untaxed and served privately. Similarly, the fact that at least in a number of countries citizens continue to go to the polls in large numbers can be more easily overlooked when one knows that inevitably it’s all about economics not politics.
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More than one thing is inevitable

A belief in the Atlantic Ocean can be defended by taking a page from the geo-economists: ideas matter. Inevitably. There is or was a branch of history called the history of ideas, whose main tenet holds that ideas move through time and space, shaping human thought and action, while being themselves shaped and modified, but inevitably having long-term, discernible effects on the tide of events. When this concept is combined with the old distinction between a so-called continental tradition and an anglo-saxon tradition in Western thought, the result is a sneaking suspicion that the Atlantic Ocean, or for that matter the English Channel, is not a rapidly-fading mirage from the past, but rather a real gap between ways of looking at life, and that these sets of ideas inevitably shape the societies which shaped them.

A first step then to examining the truth of convergence is to set out the main ideas distinguishing the two great branches of Western thought. In a way, the difference comes down to the answer to the question: how does one know anything about the world one looks out on? And how does one know that one knows? A continental tradition developed in response to this question which relied on the knowing subject, while another large branch put their faith in the known object. This may not seem at first like much of a difference, but over time has engendered some hugely different approaches to questions such as "what is it to be human?" or "how can you prove that?", and even much less abstract queries such as "what are the important considerations in measuring economic performance?" or "what do Europeans have in common if anything?" or "is science culture?".

Over a sufficiently long period it begins to look as if philosophical discovery has just as much or more impact on our lives than scientific discovery (which as it turns out is made possible by the philosophical sort). And one of these impacts has been that as these two branches grow in quite different directions, there has developed in Europe a deep-rooted set of ideas, values, and reflexes that are in fact headed in a different direction than across the channel or the ocean. This means that if Europe is embarked on a social project based on different presuppositions, and measured by different yardsticks, than those of a utility-measured society of rationally-acting individuals — something we might call the Atlantic Consensus, then no amount of advancement will help the former catch up with the latter because in fact it, "Europe", is advancing along a different path. The idea-governed trajectories of these two worlds within the universe of European-sprung civilization are simply not the same.

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More than one way to investigate the world

The goal of the journalistic project to which the current essay is an introductory text is to trace some of the workings-out of the European idea-trajectory in the spheres of contemporary debate, political ideas, economic policy and theory, social programs and perhaps some others. It would be nice, of course, to have at least a starting notion of the content or direction of the continental way, but to try to name the parts of this great tradition in a few words, in a sort of boiled-down Cliff’s Notes to Western philosophy, would be silly and vain. Equally objectionable is the notion, perhaps conveyed in the use of the term ’trajectory’, that continental thought over the last three or four hundred years forms a smooth and simple story line, while in fact its development more closely resembles the "trajectory" of un-pruned shrubbery. The least worst way then to get at the difference may be to find a shibboleth - a term when pronounced by one camp or the other sounds quite different — and, as mentioned, the most reliable one would seem to be Subject. Subjective/objective and other idea-differences cousin to this one can be found just below or even on the surface of texts in nearly every section of the daily papers in, respectively, continental or Atlantic realms.

While it is not strictly true that Descartes invented the subject (cf NIB Review of Géneologie du Sujet), he is still the best starting point especially for watching what happened next, as his body-spirit duality is seized upon and taken in very divergent directions by thinkers ever since. The general tendency has been to devote one’s attention nearly exclusively to showing the importance of one element in the dualism and going as far as to deny the existence of the other. Descartes of course was a continental, and much of the interpretation that later became empiricism was accomplished by continentals. Nonetheless early on in the après-Descartes story a British pole began to form that attracted the body-emphasizers, that is, those who wanted to observe first and reason later, to objectify the world. At the same time the continent became increasingly the home of those for whom subjective did not mean error-prone but rather the only way to avoid error, that is, to begin with reasoning and feeling subjects.
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The Channel is still there: Russell and Husserl

A modern variant of we-know-what-we-measure brought in formal logic as an additional means of certainty, and after initial growth in Vienna moved to more congenial British soil. What developed was analytic philosophy, and one of its leading lights, Gilbert Ryle, is widely credited, at least on his side of the channel, with having finally put Descartes to death. His famous solution to the mind/brain problem was to suggest that these terms are identical and the only problem is the one some people have acknowledging that what you see is all you get. Ryle was influenced by Bertrand Russell who learned a good deal from German mathematician Frege, while one of Frege’s students was Edmund Husserl, and the different roads taken by these two, Husserl and Russell, crystallizes much of our divide.

Russell sought certainty to replace deity and thought he had found it in mathematics, which he set out to redo from step one to avoid error, doubt, and above all transcendance. Husserl wanted to start again too, and when Frege found his thesis on the philosophy of mathematics "too psychological", Husserl chose to retrace Descartes instead, as a way of re-inventing the Subject. Russell woke up one day in the early 20th century to the terrifying realization that the basic truths of arithmetic cannot be proven logically, but he continued nonetheless his effort to found truth searches on extreme logical rigor, needing neither subjects nor gods. Meanwhile Husserl nullified the great mind/body divide by stopping short of it, continually going back to the investigative, doubting "I" as a starting and stopping point, arguing that Descartes "in the end preferred calculating to seeing".

Phenomenology and analytic philosophy: the Subject as starting point; or starting (and ending) with what can be measured and/or formalized. Both began by the search for certainty and each have clarified and embodied opposing answers to questions of how do we know and what is a knower. How does a knower then act is the most interesting question, and these two philosophical projects have contributed to renewing two broad avenues of responses throughout the last century and into the current one.
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Conclusion: learning from (European) history

It could be objected that in European places today like Poland, or the Czech Republic of Vaclev Haus, the hard pursuit of economic liberalism is turning large parts of European social and humanist tradition into museum pieces. It is true that lopsided convergence means that that the Atlantic, pragmatic, objectivist strand of thought is again noticeably present on European soil, and in fact seems — in its applied forms — to be nearly a majority position in Brussels. And although our schematic divide is highly simplified, it may be justified on one hand by the stark contrast between arguments from Atlantic and from continental positions on a number of policy debates and, on the other hand, by the observed difficulty many Europeans have in finding satisfaction in the more objective forms of liberalism.

In a book on Europe between 1914 and 1945 entitled La Guerre Civile Européenne ("The European Civil War"), Italian historian Enzo Traverso (writing in French) explains the tumult of that period as a triangular conflict involving fascism, communism, and liberalism, and he emphasizes that no system or response emerged as clearly satisfactory to the mass of Europeans. The post-war surge of capitalism and the anaesthesia it bought are now wearing off, and Europe is once again confronting the questions of how best to live together, this time — more at least than before — as Europeans.

Looking back, the complexity of the anti-fascist movement(s) may be seen as some sort of forerunner of today’s rumblings and grumblings on the subject of Europe, which are themselves complex in content (and in discontent). The grumblings are not only sovereigntist retrenchments and traditionalists’ love of things local and stratified, but also a dissatisfaction with the reductive machine. Traverso describes a large swathe of the anti-fascist movement as an answer to the rhetorical question: "if fascism arose out of the collapse of the old liberal regime, how can it be fought by identifying oneself with liberalism?" Voices in Europe today seem to be asking a similar question about the wisdom of combating economic injustice, or environmental damage or other problems by the same utilitarian, quantified approach that created them.

(c) Timothy Carlson

References:
Cohen-Tanugi, Laurent; L’Europe et l’Amérique au Seuil du 21e siècle; O. Jacob, 2003
Gérard Klein, "Finance et Morale"; Libération, March 13, 2008
Bertrand, Xavier; Hollande, François, et al., "Réformer la France: Mission Impossible"; Le Monde, April 19, 2008
Traverso, Enzo; A Feu et à Sang: De la guerre civile européenne 1914-1945; Stock, 2007


July/August/September 08