Problems with Declinism (part 3)

Understanding Cultural Declinism

The first problem is how we are to understand declinism. In particular, how should we formulate the central thesis of cultural declinism? And second, even more pressingly, how would we measure cultural decline? Outright numerical measurement is probably impossible, as it is unlikely that there is one commensurate scale on which we can assess the quality of cultural production and consumption.

Still, we would like there to be some way of determining cultural progress or decline, however rough. You do not need to suffer from the positivist misunderstanding that only what is measurable is real to think that an unclear notion of “cultural decline” undermines it as a thesis to be taken seriously. Here, however, cultural declinism—and mutatis mutandis, other forms of declinism—already encounter some important roadblocks. It’s useful to highlight some of them.

Quantity and Quality

A first difficulty is a quantity vs. quality issue. In absolute terms, the sheer size of cultural production is much bigger than anything we have seen before. We have some estimates for the numbers of book published, for example. Even in per capita terms, book production has been constantly rising since the 16th century. Unique published book titles per capita in the United Kingdom, for example, stagnated around 200-300 titles per 1 million people for many centuries, then rose to around 500 in the 1960s, and now is higher than 2000.

And these are the relative numbers. There isn’t much point looking at absolute numbers, as population growth combined with improving literacy and an increasingly educated populace means that we have many more writers and readers than at any time before in history. According to one rough estimate, 90% of all scientists that ever lived are currently alive.

Along similar lines, we can look at the number of artists. There are around fifty-thousand self-employed or employed artists in the United Kingdom (with some yearly fluctuations), while there are an estimated two million artists in the American workforce. (Differences in definition are likely to explain these widely disparate numbers.) It’s hard to say what these numbers would be in earlier decades and centuries, but it is likely that only contemporary, wealthy economies can sustain such a significant number of artists. We would be hard-pressed, I suspect, to find fifty-thousand artists across the entire period of Victorian England.

Of course, our declinist is likely to respond that this increase in quantity is wholly, or mostly, beside the point. What matters is the quality of cultural production (or consumption), and quality is not quantity. It’s useful to pause here for a moment. The underlying assumption behind this response is one of cultural elitism: the health of our culture is measured by its best outputs or consumers, not by its average or popular products.

Why, however, should we only care about the high points in culture? Would it not matter equally, for example, if the quality of the average novel read by the average reader improves? If a few people stopped listening to Beethoven, but millions of others read Harry Potter instead of Twilight, would our culture not overall be better? I think our best version of declinism would answer this question with a “yes”: it would focus on the wide mass of people, rather than only, or primarily, on the pinnacles of culture.

Moreover, I suspect that our best version of declinism would emphasise cultural consumption more than it would cultural production. It doesn’t matter how many great books are written if they aren’t read. Focussing on the average consumer, however, greatly increases various obstacles of finding out whether declinism is true—who is the average consumer, after all? Much declinist debate is undertaken in terms of a survey of the great intellectual heights. Most of that, however, might be beside the point. Our best question might not be whether the best Victorian novelists beat the best contemporary novelists; it might well be whether the average Victorian reader is more culturally sophisticated than the average contemporary reader.

Undeniable Improvements

A second difficulty is that there are some areas where our culture has undeniably improved. The area I know best is philosophy. Once again, we can start with the issue of quantity. When Kant became a professor of philosophy at Königsberg, for example, he joined about a two dozen other full professors. If you count philosophy professors at Königsberg in the narrow, modern sense of philosophy, you can count perhaps two to three. And Königsberg was one of only four universities in Prussia (the other three being Halle, Frankfurt an der Oder, and Duisburg) at this time. A brief back-of-the-envelope estimate, then, will tell you that a single modern German university like Berlin is likely to employ more full-time philosophers than all of Prussia in the 18th century. And Prussia was by no means a backwater, especially not in education.

In sheer quantity, then, whether it is just the number of professional philosophers, philosophy students, but also the number of professional journals, conferences, and books published, the long-term trend only shows up. Comparative numbers might be less flattering to philosophy, given how philosophy, together with the classical curriculum of the Arts, is no longer mandatory, and has been losing ground compared to the sciences. But then again, absolute numbers of philosophy have gone up: there are many more people who have been formally educated in philosophy now than there have ever been before.

Aside from quantity, I also think that it is pretty hard to deny that philosophy has made enormous strides in quality. Once again, we should not be fooled by focussing on the best. Perhaps we currently have no Kants or Aristotles (more on that in a later post). At the same time, it seems to me that philosophy has made genuine progress over time. This is a story for another day, so I’ll leave out the detail. But I think that a number of advances in related and surrounding fields—primarily logic, but also in linguistics, mathematics, economics, psychology, and the sciences in general—as well as a general decoupling of philosophy from religiously authoritative dogma means that we have some of the most vivid, dense, and insightful philosophical production in the entire history of philosophy. (Progress in philosophy is generally different in that we do not find answers; but you can still make progress in the kind of answers we ask.)

Troubles with Subjectivism

A third complication in making a clear case for declinism has to do with subjectivism in the arts. Our best account of what makes an artwork aesthetically pleasant, I suspect, is to a large extent subjectivist. Subjectivists claim that there is no answer to the question of whether an artwork is beautiful, or sophisticated, or otherwise good, independent from our tastes and preferences. Artworks simply do not have such qualities in a timeless fashion: they are beautiful to the degree that we find them so.

I do not think we should go full subjectivist when it comes to art. There are certain cognitive aspects of art—e.g., the degree to which it provides us with trenchant social insight—and those cognitive aspects lend themselves to a more objectivist comparison, such that we can say that one piece of artwork is more insightful than another. And some other features of art—say, thoughtfulness—might also not be purely subjectivist. If arranged on a scale, less cognitive art forms like music and architecture will turn out to be more subjectivist, while more cognitivist forms like literature turn out to be less so.

To the degree that subjectivism is true, declinism starts to be less interesting. Declinism would then merely be a bickering over tastes, akin to the debate over whether one national cuisine is better than another, or whether we’d like the walls painted in green or red. Of course, if our music and architecture start to be less pleasing, that is worth a complaint. But ultimately the debate would seem to have less urgency.

So I would suggest that declinism is genuinely interesting to the degree that it shows some decline in knowledge, in insight, in skill—in short, in various cognitive achievements—in our culture. Once again, I suspect, this carries us some distance away from how discussions about declinism are generally conducted.

Choosing Time Frame

Another problem, and a more general one for all kinds of declinism, is how we should choose the relevant time horizon for assessing the declinist thesis. We can choose a very long time frame—say, from the first time biological humans entered the scene to now. Then, however, we have entirely stacked the deck against the declinist. Everything will, from this long perspective, look like human progress, as even centuries of regress are smoothed out in the overarching trend line. On the other hand, as in any trend line, if you set the time frame of comparison short enough, declinism will start to look plausible, and perhaps inevitable.

A related problem is the general “hockey stick” nature of technological and economic progress. Very roughly, if you look at projected historical numbers of historical world GDP (absolute or per capita), as well as world population numbers, you find long periods of stagnation or extremely slow growth for most of human history, followed by an exponential romp starting from the early 19th century. This raises the worry that the radical changes we have seen over the last century make any comparisons beyond that time frame difficult. Kant’s Germany, just a tad over two hundred years ago, looks almost unrecognisably different from contemporary Germany.

To discuss declinism, then, we need to fix the relevant reference of time in some independent way. But how could we do so in a non-arbitrary way? A plausible starting idea is that if declinism is to be a tractable claim, it should focus on societies which have roughly comparable social and technological background conditions. We could start, for example, from the rough point in time in which the hockey stick of human development starts its exponential explosion.

Let’s put the preceding points together. It would be too much to demand of the declinists that they give a clear, commensurate measure for cultural progress. But just as much, the very nebulousness of the declinist thesis obscures many significant issues. Once we start highlighting some of these, the case for declinism starts to complicate tremendously.

(continue to part 4)

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