Specific Problems for Cultural Declinism
Let us move on to specific problems for cultural declinism. The following are, admittedly, a grab-bag of objections, some a bit experimental. Still, I have found, declinist attitudes more often than not run afoul of one or more of these various problems.
The Selection Problem
The first problem is the selection problem. The problem here is simple. What we remember from the past is the best of that past. So naturally, its cultural production will look superior to us.
We can turn, again, to the University of Königsberg in the 18th century. Kant had a number of predecessors in his position, which we can look at as a quasi-random way of looking at the average producer of culture in 18th century Prussia. Kant’s immediate predecessor on the chair for Logic and Metaphysics was Friedrich Johann Buck. It is fair to say that Buck’s published works have not made a lasting splash—amongst them are a collection of biographies of Prussian mathematicians (“especially Christian Otter’s”), a “geographic-mathematical treatise” on caves and methods to measure their depths, and one publication concerned with “teleological observations” regarding smoke.
Buck’s predecessor, in turn, was Georg David Kypke, best known as an early translator of Locke, but who seems to have published little by himself. Steve Naragon (who has an excellent website comprehensively collecting offbeat knowledge about the University of Königsberg during Kant’s time) drily notes that “[in] his later years, Kypke was better known for his vegetable garden, than for his scholarly efforts”.
There are obvious reasons why we do not remember Buck and Kypke. They were intellectually decent (and politically savvy) enough to get the hard-fought-for tenure at Königsberg, but overall their scholarly efforts were average and were quickly forgotten or obsolete. But precisely because we have forgotten about Buck and Kypke, it is easy to think that the intellectual climate of their time must have been one in which the Kants dominated—even when the opposite would have been the case. The average university teacher would have been of Buck’s or Kypke’s calibre.
This causes trouble for declinism in two ways. First, it is statistically likely that your main contact is with the Bucks and Kypkes, not with the Kants. They are most likely to be your teacher, the writers of your textbooks, or the intellectuals you see on television. So you’re likely to start to think that you live in a society of Bucks. But that’s unfair. It is no wonder that a contemporary Buck will lose out against a past Kant—but then again, the past was full of Bucks, too, we’ve just forgotten them.
But, you might respond, wouldn’t the Kants dominate the Bucks and Kypkes in public perception? To some degree, yes. But we face a second problem here: we often do not know yet who’s a Buck and who’s a Kant. Buck’s and Kypke’s scholarship, after all, seemed significant enough to their contemporaries to provide them with a highly contested chair at one of the prime universities of Prussia.
The further back we go, the more reliably enduring scholarship and art have been separated from the mediocre and ephemeral. Kant has withstood the test of time; Kypke and Buck haven’t. But the closer we get to the present, the less likely the test of time has worked. If you had lived in Kant’s time, you might have thought Kant an interesting and thoughtful university lecturer. But up until around the mid-1780s—when Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason started to have its world-changing impact—he would not have necessarily been distinguished from Kypke and Buck.
I have focussed here on philosophy, but the same effect, I suspect, can be found in many of the arts. We remember Shakespeare, but we’ve also naturally forgotten about all the other 16th century poets whose work was crap. We remember Beethoven, but no one plays or remembers the myriad of derivative romantic compositions that were also written during his time, or remembers his teacher, Ignaz Schuppanzigh. We do not presently know who’s a Kypke or Schuppanzigh and who’s a Kant or Beethoven; we know that (mostly) about the past. That’s a huge bias working in favour of declinism.
The Canonization Problem
A second problem has to do with the subjectivity of taste I touched on earlier. In short, the standards by which many declinists measure what counts as great, cultured, or sophisticated are themselves set by the historical canon. But then—even looking past the selection problem—it is unsurprising that the cultural products of the present must look inferior. If the cultural canon determines our cultural standards, and if the present is measured against that standards, then the case for cultural progress will naturally start on a bad footing.
Of course, one might object that stepping out of history demands the impossible—how should we determine aesthetic standards if not by looking at culture already achieved? But the point here is that the standards by which we assess the value of our current culture often insufficiently abstracts away from the particulars of the canon it is based on. The way how a portrait captures a person, for example, looks like a plausibly timeless standard by which to judge a portrait. But our standards of beauty also tend to import specific features from canonised paintings—e.g., a demand for realisticness—which stack the deck against modern art.
Imagine that the history of art was lined up as one museum, arranged in a linear fashion. You start from classical art, and work your way to the moderns. In such a museum, there will be a natural tendency, I presume, to take what you see first as setting your expectations. Then you will naturally be disposed to think that the modern art you see later is more disjointed, less skilful, and less graceful than what you see later.
But imagine that you just traversed the same museum reversely. Might you then not come to think that the classical works of art, in your frame of presentation now “later”, are regressive—in that they deal in fewer materials and techniques, are more restricted in their subjects and range of emotions, less daring and expressive, more often restrained by religious prejudice, and so on? You might, or you might not. But the way in which you move through this imagined museum, I suspect, will have an impact, one which currently biases us towards declinism.
The Unjust Background Problem
The next problem is that much of the culture of the past was possible only against background conditions which we would now find highly unacceptable. I’m not making the point that much of the art from the past is often racist, sexist, classist, and so on. (Although that’s also true.) Rather, the point is that many of the patterns of past cultural production and consumption were only possible against a highly stratified class society that allowed a small white, mostly male elite to create and enjoy what we now often call high culture.
Take the long-standing nostalgia for “cultural literacy”, for example. Today, the lament goes, we lack a shared knowledge of a canon—a common set of references to works of literature, poems, music, opera (etc.) which all can draw on, which enables the experience of the coffee shop in which we all gather and enjoy thoughtful, educated conversation. The children no longer know their Shakespeare; our public debates no longer move fluently and effortlessly between the great intellectual topics; the average discussant seems poorer in knowledge in general.
I’m not sure these nostalgic reminiscences are correct even as a matter of observation. Rising literacy rates, average years of schooling, and university attendance rates mean that the average person is likely to be able to draw on a much wider set of knowledge than the average person in the past, even when compared over the last few decades. (Consider data on college enrolment, for example.)
Once again, if there is any plausibility to the point, it must rely on some implicit elitist focus: if we compare the best educated of the past with the best educated of the present, the idea must be, the present loses out badly. That damages many declinist arguments, as it is not clear why we should accept such an elitism.
Let’s set aside this point, however, as there is a deeper problem. Even assuming that there was superior average cultural literacy in the past, this was only possible because there was a socially homogenous elite, sitting on top of a highly unequal class society, which had the leisure and wealth to acquire the relevant literacy, and enforce the shared culture. The forces which allowed such a homogenous cultured class, however, are highly undesirable. They require a systematic exclusion of various dissenters, an aversion to novelty, and strict social taboos.
We no longer all know our Shakespeare because there are no restrictive social forces that make it a social necessity that you know him. Instead, we live in highly diverse societies, where we are no longer bound together by a shared religion, nationality, ideology, or any other creed. There are no social and political background conditions in place any longer which allow for a unified canon to persist. But many forms of declinism, I suspect, rely on the implicit assumption that there is some such canon, things that everyone ought to know.
You might widen your notion of a canon, of course, diversifying it. That, however, does not do away with the fundamental problem: actual diversity will always outrun attempts to fix diversity in authoritative lists. Some declinist complaints, of course, might simply be intended as complaints about the diversity of modern society. But for everyone who does not share such revisionist commitments, you should better check what you are being declinist about.
The Accumulation Problem
You can’t invent the fugue again. You can’t show Tosca for the first time again. You can’t discover the photoelectric effect. You can’t write the Iliad now. You can’t come up with the idea of class struggle. That’s because our knowledge, ideas and culture are accumulative. We build on the materials from the past, and so we cannot invent them again. The tired adage that we’re sitting on the shoulders of the giants is true. An overlooked corollary, however, is that we can’t be those giants any longer.
The point is clearest in purely accumulative subjects like mathematics. Once a mathematical axiom has been found, it continues to be part of our knowledge forever (at least theoretically, unless we forget it). That means that modern mathematics has necessarily become more and more specialised. Contemporary doctorates in mathematics can be on subjects where only a handful of people even understand the question. But this, on closer inspection, is not evidence for declinism. On the contrary: it speaks towards the amazing strides that mathematicians have made over the decades. If fundamentally new and upsetting results were still found in mathematics, this would be a sign of the discipline’s immaturity.
This point has an analogue for the arts, too. You cannot write Beethoven’s Ninth again. Or more precisely, if you were to imitate Beethoven’s style closely now, your art would be boring, unimaginative and kitschy. It would not be a sign of your inventiveness, but your derivativeness. Similarly, you cannot build rotundas and columns and ornate façades any longer, at least not if you mean to create genuine, new, and interesting art. You cannot just go back to impressionist painting, at least not unironically or without framing it in some new way.
Declinists, however, often seem to ignore the accumulative aspect of our culture. The more progress we make, the harder it is to make great strides; but that does not show much about decline—on the contrary, it might show something about the amazing strides we’ve made.
There’s a connected point. Often, declinism is associated with a cult of the genius. Is the highly educated personal not versed, at least in principle, in all the subjects? Can and should they not be conversant in geography as much as poetry, politics as much as astronomy, mathematics as much as fashion? Should we not all be Renaissance men? (That it’s Renaissance men rather than Renaissance people is telling.)
Once again, I think the idea of the comprehensive genius is more fiction than fact. Still, there are plausible examples of people from the past with extremely wide areas of knowledge. We can return to Kant, who, as part of his professorship, did not only lecture on logic, metaphysics, and moral philosophy, as you might have expected: he also gave lectures on geography, anthropology, mathematics, physics, natural law, natural theology, pedagogy, and mineralogy (!).
Even if we accept that Kant was competent in each of these fields—I find it more likely that this list speaks to the appalling quality of instruction at the time—such wide-ranging competence is simply no longer possible. That is because each individual field of human knowledge has now expanded so enormously that even becoming an expert in one is a significant endeavour. Kant, Hegel and Humboldt could have a decently comprehensive overview of all the major sciences (and often contribute to many of them!) simply because those subjects were often in their infancy; in the current age, this achievement is simply no longer humanly possible. But this does not speak to human smallness; it speaks to the greatness of human achievement. That’s a point declinists often overlook.