On The Unraveling of Cultural Logic

The debate over religious liberty and abortion, as it relates to Satanism, is an indication of the weakness of a cultural attempting to legislate and rule on the basis of secular, that is, neutral, principles. Sociologist James Davison Hunter, who coined the term ‘culture wars’, has this to say in a lengthy, but valuable, article:

It was, of course, the Enlightenment, broadly understood, that formed the cultural substructure of the democratic revolution. In America, the Enlightenment project was moderate, rather than radical, and not one thing but rather a cluster of embryonic, historically provisional, and sometimes inconsistent ideas and convictions. These drew from many and assorted sources, but, most prominently, from biblical, classical, and Whiggish tributaries that were synthesized philosophically, in large part, by the common-sense realists of the Scottish Enlightenment. Within that complex and fragile collection of beliefs we find the animating cultural logic of a new social and political order. A liberal and democratic regime, it celebrated above all the ideals of freedom, tolerance, and equality, providing a foundation upon which people and associations with different interests and vantage points could contest each other’s claims.

The cultural logic of the Enlightenment project also provided the foundation of a form of authority to adjudicate disputes and dilemmas of every kind, the central ideas for collective identity, the boundaries by which claims and actions could be deemed legitimate or illegitimate, and the ground rules for political engagement. “Right Reason” would be the final arbiter of ethical and moral dilemmas…

It was in America that this unique and fragile configuration of the cultural logic of the Enlightenment was institutionalized…

These reports collectively press an argument about the humanities as the home of a uniquely American civic humanism that was understood to be crucial to the future of democracy. This broad, perhaps nebulous civic humanism would find expression in and be underwritten by the humanistic disciplines.

In one of these reports, the 1945 Harvard “Red Book,” (as General Education in a Free Society was dubbed), James Bryant Conant argued that “whatever one’s views, religion is not now for most colleges a practicable source of intellectual unity.” The only thing that could replace it, Conant wrote, was a common, humanistic education. The purpose of the humanities was to enable “man to understand man in relation to himself, that is to say, in his inner aspirations and ideals.” The “main problem” of education and the humanities, in particular, was “not with the thousand influences dividing man from man, but with the necessary bonds and common ground between them”—those common “aspirations and ideals” that would join people together. Indeed, the future of democracy depended on our discovering “a common heritage and…a common citizenship,” and from these, “the binding ties of common standards” that would allow us to discover common ground. As the authors of the Red Book and other similar reports believed, only the humanities had the capability to recover and maintain common assumptions and traditions central to civic trust, vibrant public debate, and strong democratic institutions.

In the decades that followed, the various humanities reports made similar appeals. As recently as 2013, in The Heart of the Matter, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences asked the portentous question “Who will lead America into a bright future?” and suggested that the humanities would be central to this endeavor.

The American project is failing because its foundation is too weak. The entirety of Hunter’s article is well worth the read.