The Power of Reality | John Haldane

In Goethe’s poetic play Faust, the titular erudite scholar debates with his young assistant Wagner. While Wagner is an enthusiast for enlightenment and progress, urging the transformative power of new ideas and of science, Faust prefers to trust in human experience and spiritual reflection. At one point, he asks,

Is parchment, then, the holy fount before thee, 
A draught wherefrom thy thirst forever slakes?
No true refreshment can restore thee,
Save what from thine own soul spontaneous breaks.


To which Wagner replies,

Pardon! a great delight is granted
When, in the spirit of the ages planted,
We mark how, ere our times, a sage has thought,
And then, how far his work, and grandly, we have brought.

The currency of moral, political, and social philosophy, as well as other forms of abstract theorizing, is ideas. They deal not with reality as such, but with representations and explanations of it, and often with recommendations as to how reality should be arranged. Cultural commentators also work with ideas, be it in somewhat looser ways.

Until the 1960s the commentators were few and the theorists fewer still, and the gap between them and the general population was large; but now, thanks to the expansion of higher education and the rapid growth of the internet and social networking, commentary and opinions are everywhere. One consequence of this is that the fora in which we share ideas have become crowded, noisy, and antagonistic. 

This is in part because of the natural division of opinions but also because the opiners desire to win not so much the reasoned argument as the partisan fight. A second effect is increasing superficiality and unthinking sloganizing. A third is the widespread assumption that those who do not agree with the views of oneself and one’s ideological group are either stupid or wicked. A fourth and related effect is the intimidation of the rest of the population to accept and think in line with prevailing views or else be condemned.

There is much to say about this, but I want to focus on just one issue, which I will call the “conceit of ideas.” There are three aspects to this: First, it involves pride, like that of Wagner, in one’s own awareness, cleverness, and insight as an “ideas” person. Consider Coleridge’s comment that “the wise only possess ideas; the greater part of mankind are possessed by them.” Second, the conceit of ideas assumes that ideas are superior to the ordinary experiences of everyday life. Third, it presupposes that action is secondary to thought, or put another way, that ideas make the world and drive our existence. 

One current example of this conceit is the relentless use of the term “progressive.” In the seventeenth century the Scottish philosopher and Presbyterian minister Hugh Binning wrote in a sermon that “The life as well as the light of the righteous is progressive,” meaning that those who followed the teachings and commands of Christ advanced morally and spiritually. The present-day use of the term, however, might more suitably be expressed by saying that “the life as well as the light of the progressive is righteous.” “Progressive” today is used to mean “good”: “progressive ideas,” “progressive values,” “progressive visions,” “progressive policies,” “progressive practices”—put in whatever you like and the implication is that whatever is “progressive” is rational, right, and righteous. 


The former U.K. premier Gordon Brown once said: “I have studied history and I know that the future of our country is a progressive alliance between progressive political parties.” He might as well have congratulated himself by saying “I know that the future of eating is a progressive alliance between progressive food producers” or “the future of waste disposal is a progressive alliance between progressive waste managers.” It is a mark of this pervasive vacuity of thought and slavishness to fashion in various areas that one can easily imagine that these things have already been said by food producers or waste managers, and indeed they have. 

My point is not to criticize certain ideas, values, visions, policies, or practices but to question the process of canonizing them with the adjective “progressive.” They have to be assessed on their own terms. To describe them as “progressive” is to evade such assessment by presuming their righteousness. This is a case of “approbative definition”: inserting one’s approval into what seems a mere description, and thereby gaining, as Bertrand Russell said in another connection, “the method of postulating what we want has many advantages, they are the same as the advantages of theft over honest toil.” That ties together two features of the conceit of ideas: pride in being a “progressive” thinker and superiority in being “progressive” rather than ordinary or stuck in the existing everyday. There remains the third feature: the assumption that ideas are the drivers of life. 

“Progressives” in whatever field are generally unknowingly subscribers to what British historian Herbert Butterfield termed “whig history”: the view that the present is better than the past because it is further along a trajectory out of darkness into light, out of vice into virtue, out of nastiness into niceness. An echo of this idea is to be heard in the phrase “the right side of history,” which like “progressive” itself seeks to suppress the ethical questions “what is right?” and “what is better?”

A common if not universal element in the idea of “progressivism” is that there is a right direction to history (the side on which the “progressive” stands) and that it is “progressive” ideas that drive that history. Again, my concern is not with the content of specific cultural, ethical, or political ideas or theories, which have to be evaluated on their own terms apart from any approving or disapproving titles, but with an unquestioned assumption—in this case, the assumption that ideas drive history rather than being the effects of it. If, however, one looks to the origins of such ethical ideas as those of “natural rights,” “the inviolability of the innocent,” “the just wage,” “universal suffrage,” and “the equality of the sexes” it emerges that these were as much the consequence of events and social changes as the engines of them. 

Marx thought that ideas were the by-products of material processes, specifically conflicts of power. That was too restrictive and too deterministic, but it is worth considering that what we think may be the result of how we live as much as, and perhaps more than, how we live is the result of what we think. Moral, political, and social ideas have developed over the centuries but usually in response to lived experience, particularly as that has been challenged and disrupted by events such as famine, war, and natural disasters. It has been the experience of these that has given rise to new ways of thinking, but that process is neither linear nor cumulative. 

Events may induce one to give up favored ideas or to embrace them more closely. Writing of Charles Dickens over a century ago, G. K. Chesterton observed that 

He did not dislike this or that argument for oppression: he disliked oppression. He disliked a certain look on the face of a man when he looks down on another man. And the look on that face is the only thing in the world that we really have to fight between here and the fires of hell….He cared nothing for the fugitive explanations of [various political theories]…He saw that under many forms was one fact, the tyranny of man over man; and he struck at it when he saw it, whether it was old or new.

Ethics is about acting well, about acquiring and exercising virtues in response to situations that call for them, and about curbing vices that would lead us to act badly. Ethical theories may be built out of these responses, but they come after the facts, and the facts in question are events and our emotional and considered reactions to them. Of course, ideas matter—but as appropriate or inappropriate ways of thinking about experience. 

Asserting pre-existing theories may be an obstacle to seeing what is really good or bad, and the tendency to such assertions may be a mark of the conceit I have spoken of: pride, presumed superiority, and a blind intellectualism that puts abstract ideas ahead of common experience. 

As the war in Ukraine grinds on, China intensifies its threats to Taiwan, stagflation spreads across the world, the hunger crisis deepens, and the frequency and range of woodland fires increase, it is likely that the events of this decade will give rise to further cultural, ethical, and political thinking. But this thinking could lead us back to previously discarded ideas as much as it could lead forward to new ones. Indeed, the very use of the terms “back” and “forward,” “reactionary” and “progressive” is part of what I am urging we give up, the better to think freely and authentically. We must consider the possibility that “no true refreshment can restore thee, / Save what from thine own soul spontaneous breaks.”

John Haldane is professor of philosophy of education at Australian Catholic University.

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things.