Eat it

Terry Eagleton

Hegel thought it a mark of the modern age that philosophy had taken over from art and religion as the custodian of truth. The World Spirit had come to self-consciousness in his own head, rendering any less rational form of knowledge outmoded. Yet religion has retained its capacity to spark riots and launch civil wars, while art has survived as a refined version of religion for the intelligentsia: most aesthetic concepts are displaced theology. Besides, philosophy proved too abstract to stand in for the passionate certitudes of faith or the sensuous immediacy of the work of art. Some more tangible alternative to religion was demanded; and as the 19th century drew on, this role was filled by the human sciences, a reflection of the human species’s endless, narcissistic fascination with itself.

Auguste Comte, the founder of sociology, called for a break with both theological and metaphysical modes of inquiry. Philosophy, not least the Hegelian brand, was lumped in the latter category. In this way, the discipline which reigned supreme for Hegel was consigned by his successor to the dustheap of history, along with the art and religion which he himself had offloaded there. Human knowledge was to be based on empirical evidence and scientific certainty, not on crucified gods, nebulous notions of the Zeitgeist or fantasies of social revolution.

Even the grimly positivist Comte, however, found it hard to dispense with the supernatural altogether. His ideal society is riddled with pseudo-ecclesial institutions, all the way from a secularised form of baptism to a priestly caste of scientific guardians. The realm of mythical, symbolic and affective life, rudely expelled from social science, must be smuggled in by the back door if the non-scientifically-minded masses are to be sold the new scientific truths. If it was proving difficult to substitute humanity for religion, it was partly because since Feuerbach, the concept of humanity itself had been secretly theological. George Eliot was a devout believer in what was then known as the Religion of Humanity. God had been dethroned by an equally exotic, infinitely capacious creature known as Man. Since Christianity has rather a lot to say about God becoming Man, this smacked more of a replay than a refutation. It was not until the advent of Nietzsche, who realised that we had murdered God but cravenly refused to acknowledge it, that this bungled substitution would be laid bare.

Even then, theology refused a decent burial. When the human sciences hit their stride at the end of the 19th century with the work of Durkheim, Marcel Mauss, James Frazer, Henri Lévy-Bruhl and others, this rigorously rationalist mode of investigation, as in some uncanny return of the repressed, found itself reverting again and again to religious subjects. As Durkheim was beginning work on his magisterial Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Mauss was grappling with his thesis on prayer, which followed up his seminal ‘Essay on the Nature and Function of Sacrifice’. It is, of course, understandable that ethnologists and anthropologists should lavish such attention on a question which bulks so large in the premodern cultures they investigate. Yet for both Durkheim and Mauss there were political considerations at stake too. So-called primitive societies displayed a solidarity which modern civilisation had forsaken to its peril. And this was obvious above all in ‘primitive’ religious practices. If this solidarity could be reinvented in rational form, shorn of its taboos and superstitions, we would have something very like a just social order. From Samoa to social democracy was a shorter distance than it seemed. Religion, nowadays a bugbear of the left, could be seen around the turn of the 20th century as a precious resource for it.

The human sciences, then, sported a political agenda from the outset. Such beliefs, to be sure, were not supposed to interfere with the collecting of data. In good positivist fashion, Mauss sought to put value-preferences on ice in order to attend to the bare facts. It’s true that there is more to positivism than a cult of bare fact, pace the less savvy kind of postmodernist who detects something sinisterly positivist about statements such as ‘Keswick is in the Lake District.’ Those who nowadays drape words like ‘fact’ in scare quotes would no doubt be surprised to learn that positivism saw itself often enough as a radical phenomenon. Yet though pioneers of the human sciences like Mauss were wary of distorting the facts with values, they could still move from the descriptive to the prescriptive, plucking a whole programme of social reform, right down to proposals for state pensions, from what they saw as the human solidarity of premodern cultures. For these archaic avant-gardists, as for some Modernist artists, the surest guide to the future was the past.

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