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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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The last two hundred years have witnessed a sharp-
ened interest in what causes men to do, believe, create,
or destroy, and under what circumstances and influ-
ences; what has helped to sustain or threaten the pres-
ervation of their ideas, norms, values, symbols, manners
and customs, institutions and artifacts; what degree
of balance or tension has attended contemporaneous
social configurations, or their chronological trans-
formation through time (the “synchronic” and “dia-
chronic” mode of culture in anthropological termi-
nology). This growing preoccupation has been the
cause and the symptom of what is meant by the histor-
ical and cultural self-consciousness of modern times.
The chief practitioners in this search have been a
hybrid species of historians cum philosophers, though
some, M. J. de Condorcet, Auguste Comte, or Karl
Marx, for example, might have preferred being thought
of as social scientists. Frequently these thinkers were
also social critics, no less eager to bring about change
in the future than they were to trace it in the past.
But notwithstanding divergences in orientation or
method, they all derived inspiration from, or reacted
to the challenge of the advances made in the physical
sciences. The idea that the emergence, perpetuation,
and development of human events were phenomena
susceptible to discoverable principles was never far
from their minds, even when they emphatically insisted
that these principles were sui generis and attainable
by methods radically different from those of the physi-
cal sciences.

Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), was one who indeed
boldly declared that the cultural world of man, since
it was created by man, was more likely to yield its
secrets to human inquiry than the world of nature
which only God, the sole creator of that world, can
know with certainty. Explicitly or implicitly, this basic
premiss of Vico's New Science (Scienza nuova, 1725)
became the bedrock of subsequent speculations about
the genesis, content, and development of culture.

Ideas on the Genesis of Culture. When in his New
(1744 ed., §331; trans. Bergin and Fisch) Vico
claimed that “the world of nations, or civil world,


which, since men had made it, men could come to
know,” he did not mean that man, as an individual,
everywhere, and at all times, consciously made the
institutions, symbols, and norms that characterize civil
cultures or civilizations. The first steps in the building
of the “world of nations” were, on the contrary, taken
by creatures, the consequences of whose acts were not
intended by them (ibid., §133). Thus religion, for ex-
ample, came about “when men's intentions were quite
otherwise, it brought them in the first place to fear
of the divinity, the cult of which is the first fundamental
basis of commonwealths” (ibid., §629). Unintended
consequences, then, are clearly conceived of as integral
to the emergence and development of social cultures.
Vico concedes, indeed stresses, that men have finite
minds, that they frequently do not know the outcome
of their actions, yet he also insists that their intentions,
their “wills” rest on consciousness, or conscienza (ibid.,
§137). There is no suggestion that men follow the
dictates of some transcendent being or, as in the Third
Proposition of Kant's “Idea of a Universal History”
(Idee zu einer allegemeinen Geschichte in Weltburger-
licher Absicht,
1784), that they toil “for the sake of
those who come after them,” even without intending
it. Men merely obey their own spirit and, in so doing,
may or may not advance the cause of posterity (New
§§340, 376).

On the assumption, then, that men, being partici-
pants in and not only observers of their form of life
or culture, can understand the working of human wills
or purposes in a way they can never hope to understand
the working of nonhuman phenomena, Vico proceeded
to trace the origin of human cultures. Emphasizing that
these cultures had “separate origins among the several
peoples, each in ignorance of the others” (ibid., §146),
he also sought to discover “in what institutions all men
have perpetually agreed and still agree. For these
institutions will be able to give us the universal and
eternal principles (such as every science must have)
on which all nations were founded and still preserve
themselves” (ibid., §332). These primary institutions,
without which culture would be inconceivable, Vico
identified with religion and rituals of birth, marriage,
and burial, events common to all cultures (ibid.,

In effect, therefore, Vico advanced two theories of
the genesis of culture. On the one hand he rejected
cultural diffusion as an explanation for the emergence
of a given culture in favor of a multiple-independent-
origin theory. On the other hand he stipulated a
common-origin theory, by viewing diverse manifesta-
tions of culture as “modifications” of certain archetypes
“common to all nations,” a proof for which he saw
in “proverbs or maxims of vulgar wisdom, in which
substantially the same meanings find as many diverse
expressions as there are nations ancient and modern.”
To observe the diversity of cultural manifestations and
to uncover the “common mental language” underlying
them was the task of philology which, for Vico, pro-
vided the essential empirical foundation upon which
philosophy could erect its theoretical edifice (ibid.,

Closest to Vico's thought is that of Herder. Inquiring
into the genesis of culture Herder asks what charac-
terizes man as a creature of culture as distinct from
his biological existence as a creature of nature. In his
first major philosophical work On the Origin of Lan-
(Über den Ursprung der Sprache, 1772), Herder
had refuted the idea of man as essentially a “rational
animal,” of reason as some sort of entity or “faculty”
that was simply superimposed on man's animal nature.
Man, he maintained, was fundamentally different from
the animal. His capacity for speech, therefore, was a
function of the totality of his powers, the manifestation
of the “entire economy of his perceptive, cognitive,
and volitional nature” (Werke, V, 28). By virtue of this
wholly different direction of his energies man is no
longer “an infallible mechanism in the hands of Na-
ture.” Although not endowed at birth with conscious
self-awareness, he has the propensity to attain it, and
thus, unlike the animal, he can attain a state of devel-
opment in which by “mirroring himself within himself”
he becomes a reflective being (ibid., V, 28, 95). Owing
to this capacity for self-awareness man is acutely con-
scious of his imperfections and hence “always in mo-
tion, restless, and dissatisfied.” Unlike the bee “which
is perfect when building her first cell,” man's life is
characterized by “continuous becoming” (ibid., V, 98).

In addition to the capacity for reflection, Herder,
like Vico before him, stresses man's sense of freedom.
While the animal is wholly a creature of nature, and
confined to that sphere of activity for which it is
equipped by its natural instincts, man, not thus deter-
mined, is also a creature of freedom. His perfectibility
or corruptibility is closely bound up with this distin-
guishing feature. “Man alone,” Herder writes in his
Ideas for a Philosophy of History (Ideen zur Philosophie
der Geschichte der Menschheit,
1784-91), “has made a
goddess of choice in place of necessity..., he can ex-
plore possibilities and choose between alternatives....
Even when he most despicably abuses his freedom,
man is still king. For he can still choose, even though
he chooses the worst” (ibid., XIII, 110, 146-47). Man's
sense of imperfection and his sense of freedom, then,
are posited as the essential (psychological) prerequisites
for the emergence and development of human culture.

Herder's theme of self-consciousness was taken over
by Hegel who made it the very condition of a people's


sense of history, while the notion of restlessness reap-
peared in a more socially oriented form in Kant's essay
on universal history. Kant identified men's “mutual
antagonism in society” as the origin of “all the culture
and art that adorn humanity” (op. cit., Fourth and Fifth

But were man's imaginative, cognitive, and social
propensities primary determinants, inherently self-
generated and autonomous, or were they rather reac-
tions, induced by and contingent upon the particular
physical environment in which he found himself? This
was the question with which Montesquieu essentially
sought to come to grips. In his De l'esprit des lois
(1748), he inquired into the nature and source of a
“general spirit” within a given society. Fully aware
of the interrelations between natural or physical and
social or institutional elements, he seems on occasion
quite undecided which to regard as the ultimate deter-
minant, as in his hesitancy over the primacy of climate
versus political constitutions, or in his vacillation con-
cerning religion, which he alternately described as a
determining and determined factor (Book XXIV, Ch.
3). However, the prevailing tenor of his account of the
rise of civilizations was in terms of geographical and
climatic determinants, echoes of which are still dis-
cernible in Arnold Toynbee's formula of challenge-
and-response in his A Study of History (1934-61). Thus,
when enumerating such culture-determining agents as
religion, laws, maxims of government, mores, and
manners, he mentioned these after climate (ibid., Book
XIX, Ch. 4).

This emphasis on geo-climatic determinants has
prompted commentators like R. G. Collingwood, in
The Idea of History (1946, p. 79), to suggest that
Montesquieu “in fact conceived human life as a reflec-
tion of geographical and climatic conditions, not oth-
erwise than the life of plants.” What lends support to
this criticism was Montesquieu's basic assumption that
human nature itself was a constant.

Like many Enlightenment thinkers Voltaire did not
challenge this assumption, but he did question Montes-
quieu's emphasis on geo-climatic factors as the prime
determinants of cultural differences. Not the physical
facts of a given environment, Voltaire argued in his
Essai sur les moeurs et l'esprit des nations (1769), but
man's ingenuity in mastering these, constituted the root
of civilization. If human life were a matter merely of
biology, civilization would indeed be the same
wherever natural conditions were alike. But “the realm
of custom is much vaster than that of nature; it extends
over manners and morals, over all habits; it gives vari-
ety to the scene of the universe” (Oeuvres, Paris
[1877-85], Vol. XIII, Ch. 197). Therefore, it is not
nature, Voltaire concluded, but “culture [which] pro
duces diverse fruits” (ibid.). The crowning achievement
of these diverse cultural endeavors, and the means of
their perpetuation, Voltaire saw in the rise of great
cities. In this close identification of culture with the
emergence of cities he was, however, at odds not only
with Montesquieu but with many subsequent writers,
who viewed urban growth as a threat to the continu-
ance of culture, if not as an unmistakable symptom
of its decline.

Ideas on the Content of Culture. Broadly speaking,
there are two distinguishable approaches: (1) those
which essentially constitute a critique of modern civi-
lization, stressing its cultural fragmentation, and (2)
those which conceive of culture as an integral whole.
At times both positions have been held concurrently,
the critique of disunity being in fact a plea for unity.

(1) Culture versus Civilization. When Diderot,
Rousseau, Herder, the romantics, or, more recently,
Spengler, pointed up the contrast between the natural,
organic, creative, genuine, on the one hand, and the
artificial, mechanical, stereotyped, and superficial, on
the other, between the nobility, deep-rootedness, free-
dom, and equality of the savage, or the contentment
of medieval man, and the corruption, alienation, ser-
vility, and exploitation of modern man, the chief
impetus was invariably polemical. That the apotheosis
of primitive or medieval man was or was not support-
able by anthropology or history was scarcely relevant.
What mattered was to unmask the pretensions of con-
temporary civilization, to puncture the pride and
complacency that went with it. Underlying the polem-
ics was a craving for spontaneity, sincerity, and warm
sensibility rather than cold rationality, the concrete
rather than the abstract, and a recognition of the in-
comparability and immeasurability of things. Though
Vico's ideas were seminal in a number of these direc-
tions, they were rarely known at first, and there can
be little doubt that Diderot's influence was the most
pervasive, soon to be followed by that of Rousseau and

Diderot's critique of contemporary society, center-
ing on the self-estrangement of modern man, finds its
most pungent articulation in his novel Rameau's
(Le Neveu de Rameau) written in the 1760's
but not published during his lifetime. The abject
Rameau extols vice, but in doing so, uncovers the
inversion and perversion of prevailing values. Rous-
seau's Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (Discours sur
les arts et sciences,
1750), written some fifteen years
earlier, though with Diderot's encouragement, also
pursues the theme of alienation. Rousseau does not
claim that human nature was intrinsically better before
the advance of the arts and sciences, only that social
life and mores were in closer harmony with it. Modern


civilization imposed its pattern on men, unlike the
original cultures which grew out of men's needs. What
is more, modern civilization imposed a wholly uniform
pattern, casting every mind in the same mold. “Polite-
ness requires this, decorum that; ceremony has its set
forms, fashion its laws, and these we must always fol-
low, never the promptings of our own nature”
(Oeuvres, Deterville ed., I, 10).

In the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (Dis-
cours sur l'origine de l'inégalité,
1754) Rousseau assails,
as Vico had done before him, the natural law theorists
for mistaking the artificial for the original, for making
man a philosopher before he is a man, and for giving
the name of natural law to a collection of norms they
happen to find expedient, thus rationalizing existing
practices and institutions, in particular that of private
property. Such natural laws may be in conformity with
modern civilization, but they have nothing in common
with original customs and traditions. Private property
may indeed have ushered in the era of civilization, but
what has it done to the traditional way of life of earlier
cultures? “It now became the interest of men to appear
what they really were not. To be and to seem became
two completely different things.” Men lost their sense
of identity; they became estranged from themselves
and from each other. In place of the bonds of organic
community relations there arose “rivalry and competi-
tion on the one hand and conflicting interests on the
other” (Oeuvres, I, 286).

Herder's indictment of his age was no less severe.
Few documents constitute so devastating an attack on
contemporary civilization as his Yet Another Philoso-
phy of History
(Auch eine Philosophie der Geschichte,
1774). With the incisiveness of a surgeon's knife it lays
bare the sores of the eighteenth-century world. The
so-called enlightenment and civilization have affected
only a few in a narrow strip of the globe, and even
where light has been shed, ominous shadows are never
far afield. Civilization has forced people into mines,
into treadmills, and into cities which are fast becoming
slag-heaps of human vitality and energy. So much in
the arts, in industry, in war and civil life has been
mechanized that the human machine has lost its zest
to function. Man is alienated from himself: head and
heart are rent apart. The culture of the age is a paper
culture, its ideals mere abstractions, instruments of
self-deception (Werke, V, 532-41).

Much of what these critics had to say on the ills
of eighteenth-century civilization in Europe, on alien-
ation, acquisitiveness, colonialism, and so on, reverber-
ates in subsequent sociopolitical writings; but nowhere
is the parallelism of mood and terminology quite so
striking as in Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West
(Der Untergang des Abendlandes, 1918-23). For
Spengler civilization marks the disintegration, the last
dying phase of a culture. In his characterization of
civilization one encounters practically every one of the
themes just traced. The basic source of cultural decline
Spengler sees in the giant city, the “megalopolis,” as
he calls it. Its society is not a community but a “mass,”
leading a sort of nomadic, parasitic life, devoid of past
or future. Rootless, restless, traditionless, it is constantly
on the move, knowing neither whither nor why. In
the end the city—and with it civilization—proves the
negation of the negation, the seed of its own destruc-
tion (I, 31-34, 424; II, 310; trans. C. F. Atkinson, New
York [1926-28]).

For writers such as Kant, Coleridge, and Matthew
Arnold, culture represents essentially the moral condi-
tion of the individual, while civilization means the
conventions of society. Invariably the former is also
associated with “spiritual” values, the latter with “ma-
terial” values. Remarking that Rousseau was not so far
wrong when he preferred the state of the savages, Kant
adds (in the Seventh Proposition of the “Idea of a
Universal History”) that though we are civilized, “even
to excess in the way of all sorts of social forms of
politeness and elegance... there is still much to be
done before we can be regarded as moralized.” Exter-
nal propriety merely constitutes civilization; only the
idea of morality “belongs to real culture.” This distinc-
tion, and to some extent the skepticism about the value
of civilization, became quite common in nine-
teenth-century English writing, largely owing to the
influence of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an ardent disci-
ple of Kant. “Civilization,” Coleridge writes in On the
Constitution of Church and State
(1830, Ch. V):

... is itself but a mixed good, if not far more a corrupting
influence, the hectic of disease, not the blossom of health,
and a nation so distinguished more fitly to be called a
varnished than a polished people, where civilization is not
grounded in cultivation, in the harmonious development of
those qualities and faculties that characterize our humanity.

Matthew Arnold, another leading advocate of cul-
ture in terms of moral self-perfection, interestingly
anticipated in his Culture and Anarchy (1869) C. P.
Snow's theme of the “two cultures.” Culture is first
and foremost moral improvement and not “merely or
primarily [the perfection] of the scientific passion for
pure knowledge” (Ch. 1). Toynbee, by contrast, gener-
ally understood by civilization the highest development
of social cultures from their primitive origins (op. cit.,
I, 438).

None of these distinctions, however, has found reso-
nance in the writings of modern cultural anthropolo-
gists, the first leading exponent of whom was E. B.
Tylor. In his Primitive Culture (1871, p. 1) he defined


culture as “that complex whole which includes knowl-
edge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other
capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member
of society.” This holistic conception was, however, not
entirely novel; it had its intellectual antecedents from
Vico to Herder and beyond.

(2) Culture as an Integral Whole. Vico's ideas prove
highly original in this direction also. Both his multiple-
independent-origin theory and his theory of cyclical
development clearly indicate that he thought of cul-
tures in terms of wholes or configurations. At each stage
of its development a given culture represents a com-
plex of interrelated and interdependent constituents,
each of which shares with the others certain distinctive
characteristics. “As from a trunk, there branch out from
one limb logic, morals, economics, and politics,” Vico
wrote in the New Science (§367). Diderot, in D'Alem-
bert's Dream
(Le Rêve de D'Alembert, 1769), employed
the image of a swarm of bees in order to give expression
to this notion of organic unity, i.e., to the idea that
a whole is qualitatively unique and different from a
mere aggregate of individual parts. The conception of
a whole as a complex whole characterizes also Voltaire's
epoch-making contribution to the study of culture, the
Essai sur les moeurs. Civilization, for Voltaire, is a
totality forged by men in their social life and actions.
Few thinkers before or after him penetrated more
profoundly into the “spirit of the time,” a concept he
was the first to express; yet only rarely did he succeed
in transcending the values of his own times. While he
strongly emphasized the need for a harmonious balance
of diverse human aspirations, his criterion for what
constituted a proper balance was highly culture-bound,
a fact which the young Herder was not slow in observ-
ing. Why, Herder asked in Yet Another Philosophy,
should we take for granted that the beliefs of past ages
were the same as ours, their standard of happiness
identical to our own? “Has not each man, each nation,
each period, the center of happiness within itself, just
as every sphere has its center of gravity?” (Werke, V,

Though Herder's thought owed much to Voltaire,
it marks an important departure from Voltaire's cul-
tural monism. Herder felt it would be more accurate
to speak of specific cultures—in the plural—rather than
of culture in general. There is no such thing, Herder
further declared, as a people devoid of culture. To be
sure, there are differences, but these are differences
of degree, not of kind. To apply the standard of Euro-
pean culture as a standard for comparison, let alone
as a universal yardstick of human values, is plainly
meaningless. Each culture carries within itself its own
immanent validity, and hence we have to think of the
world as being composed of uniquely different socio
cultural entities, each with its own pattern of develop-
ment, its own inner dynamic growth.

Although Herder was mainly concerned with elicit-
ing sources of integration within a given culture, he
recognized that there were subcultures that could ex-
ercise a divisive no less than a unifying influence. “A
nation,” he writes, “may have the most sublime virtues
in some respects and blemishes in others... and reveal
the most astonishing contradictions and incongruities”
(ibid., V, 506). To speak, therefore, of a cultural whole
is not necessarily a way of referring to a state of blissful
harmony; it may just as conceivably refer to a field
of tension. In contrast to those who identified culture
with spiritual pursuits, and civilization with material
progress, Herder rejected the dualism between “mate-
rial” and “non-material” activity. Artifacts are as much
part of culture as ideas, beliefs, and values. Culture
comprises all of man's creative activities, both what
he does and what he thinks. Of particular concern to
Herder were culture determinants that help to produce
a sense of collective identity, and these he identified
chiefly with language, shared symbols and values, cus-
toms and norms of reciprocity. Physical environmental
factors he considered of secondary importance, capable
of “only influencing, favorably or unfavorably, but not
of compelling a given course of development,” as he
put it in the Ideas (ibid., XIII, 273). It is interesting,
both from the point of view of modern anthropology
and also against the historical background of the “age
of reason” to find that Herder saw in nonrational ele-
ments significant molding agents of social cultures.
Neither myths nor prejudices are dismissed by him as
irrelevant aberrations. Furthermore, unlike subsequent
thinkers, Marxists in particular, Herder did not view
ideas and beliefs as epiphenomenal, as mere super-
structures. Certain myths or religious doctrines, he
agreed, may indeed be intimately associated with eco-
nomic and political institutions and practices; but this
does not prove anything about their respective origins
or significance, nor does it deny their essential auton-
omy. By the same token, whatever “functions” either
of them may be said to perform within a given “sys-
tem” proves nothing about their necessary or even
sufficient conditions or interrelationships. Myths and
religions may or may not serve the function of main-
taining authoritarian (religious and/or political) struc-
tures, but this is not tantamount to saying that such
structures would necessarily disappear with the disap-
pearance of myths and religions (or vice versa), or that
shamans, priests, or dictators invented certain beliefs,
or invariably used them to deceive others without
accepting them themselves. “By dismissing them as
cheats,” Herder observes in the Ideas (ibid., XIII, 307),
“one is inclined to think that one has explained every-


thing. They may well have been cheats in many or
most places, but this should not induce us to forget
that they were people too, and the dupes of myths
older than themselves.”

Herder's historical relativism and cultural pluralism
affected, directly or indirectly, the thinking of J. G.
Fichte, Friedrich Schlegel and Hegel, the historical law
school of Savigny, the political romantics, J. S. Mill,
and the writing of cultural history up to Spengler, T.
S. Eliot, and Toynbee. Nor has Herder's anatomy of
culture lost relevance for modern sociology and an-
thropology. In particular it demonstrates that situa-
tional-functional analysis, taken by itself, is inadequate
as an explanatory tool if what we seek in terms of
explanation is evaluation of content and/or determi-
nation of purpose, and that, therefore, functionalism
can scarcely dispense with process analysis. Thus, far
from being inconsistent, functional and historical
approaches are indeed complementary or interde-
pendent. Furthermore, Herder's heuristic principle of
treating every manifestation of culture as essentially
autonomous, though interrelated in the two-
dimensional sense indicated, also implies that the ap-
plicable mode of causality is that of multiple causation.
Both the idea of two-dimensional interaction and the
idea of multiple causation have come to be recognized
as potentially fruitful perspectives or conceptual aids
in the study of social cultures.

Ideas on the Development of Culture. As a result
of eighteenth-century progressivism and nineteenth-
century evolutionism the very notion of “develop-
ment” has become culture-impregnated. It has as-
sumed the status of an absolute, a universal value, a
symbol of modernity and, as such, a conscious goal or
ideal in a growing number of social cultures. Ideas on
the development of culture are, therefore, in a real
sense, also ideas of the development of culture.

Apart from the assumption of continuous improve-
ment (intimately associated with unilinear ideas on
progress), three other assumptions commonly underlie
the notion of cultural development. First, there is the
belief that despite discontinuities there is a substantial
degree of continuity between phases or stages of a
given culture, although writers differ regarding the
individual significance and the mutual linkage of such
stages. Secondly, there is a widely shared consensus
that striving towards ends is implicit in the notion of
human or cultural development, even if it is frequently
not clear whether a thinker is discussing teleology in
history or the teleology of history, or both. Lastly, there
is the assumption that culture constitutes not a “thing,”
but a relational continuum in and through time, so that
culture is both a product of the past and a creator
of the future.

It is evident from these assumptions, particularly the
last, that the notion of cultural development raises the
problem not only of change but also of persistence.
Generally speaking, writers employing the organismic
paradigm of growth—and these tend to coincide with
the “holists”—have acknowledged the significance of
persistence. Civilization, Edmund Burke, for example,
insisted in his Reflections on the Revolution in France
(1790), was chiefly a matter of past achievements over
the ages (Works, London [1899], II, 351). The political
romantics, likewise, preferred to cast their gaze back-
wards rather than forwards.

The prevalent orientation, however, was forward-
looking or progressivist, even among those who traced
cyclical or dialectic patterns in development. Vico, for
example, envisaged the course of development in terms
of recurrent cycles, with each cycle comprising three
ages, of gods, heroes, and men, dominated by religion,
myth, and philosophy, respectively, and reappearing,
not in identical form, but in a “diversity of modes”
as an upward-spiralling movement (New Science,
§1096). Kant, Hegel, and Marx insisted in their differ-
ent ways on dialectic rather than unilinear change, but
at the same time saw each stage subservient to the
next, inexorably leading to a predetermined end. Even
Herder, the most outspoken opponent of the idea of
linear progress, never concealed his faith in secular
redemption as the terminal goal of the historical proc-
ess. Curiously enough, the man who set the tone of
the progressivist era, Voltaire, was no sanguine pro-
gressivist himself. It is true that the distant past was
for him an age of darkness or semidarkness, yet he
expressed no inordinate trust in the future as the har-
binger of apocalyptic portents. Acutely conscious of
the debits that accompanied the credits in the ledger
of history, “later” did not self-evidently mean “better”
for him. In comparing his own age with that of Louis
XIV, for example, he left no doubt about his preference
for the latter. It would seem, therefore, that it was
Voltaire's contempt for the more remote past, in par-
ticular the Middle Ages, rather than his faith in contin-
uous progress which cast him into the mold in which
others came to see him.

But if the origin of the idea of uninterrupted cultural
progress has somewhat erroneously been associated
with Voltaire, its culmination is rightly identified with
Condorcet's Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Pro-
gress of the Human Mind
(Esquisse d'un tableau his-
torique des progrès de l'esprit humain,
1794), which
expressed unbounded optimism in man's progressively
mounting capacity to understand and hence to control
the “laws” of his own development. For Condorcet,
no less than for Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson
after him, the “march of civilization” was continuous.


Barbarism was bound to recede before the advance and
diffusion of knowledge and the emergence of a new
social and political ethic. Scientific procedures would
liberate man from the excess baggage of the past.
While for Vico and Herder religion and myth were
vital ingredients of culture, Condorcet dismissed them
summarily as the work of cheats and scoundrels. And
in contrast to their skepticism towards cultural diffu-
sion, Condorcet displayed complete confidence in the
transferability of cultures from more to less developed
countries, maintaining indeed that the latter would,
after importing the “know-how,” actually overtake the
former, whenever they were able to avoid their mis-
takes. For Condorcet cultural development consisted
essentially in technological and scientific advance, and
his Sketch surveyed the history of man's intellectual
achievements, divided into ten stages of scientific and
technologically based progress. Arriving at his own age
he felt that “philosophy has nothing more to guess,
no more hypothetical surmises to make; it is enough
to assemble and order the facts and to show the useful
truths that can be derived from their connection and
from their totality” (Introduction, trans. June Barra-

Condorcet's faith in strict empiricism and scientific
procedures profoundly inspired Auguste Comte's Cours
de philosophie positive
(1830-42). In it Comte sought
to establish universal historical laws, the most funda-
mental of which stipulates three phases through which
all human societies must pass, the theological, meta-
physical, and positive. Of considerable interest is
Comte's analysis of cultural development in terms of
social statics and social dynamics, in that it emphasizes
the two-dimensional nature of interaction to which
Herder had drawn attention. Social statics seeks to
study the interconnections and functions of cultural
components within a cultural whole at a given time,
while social dynamics focuses on the vertical interrela-
tions and changes over time. Comte's demand that
sociocultural development should be studied in a man-
ner analogous to that applicable to causal uniformities
in the realm of nature did not fall on deaf ears.

Two influential works that appeared in close succes-
sion, Henry Thomas Buckle's History of Civilization
in England
(1857) and Karl Marx's A Contribution to
the Critique of Political Economy
(1859) attempted to
pay heed to Comte's insistence on inductive inquiry.
Buckle sought to demonstrate that “the actions of men
being determined solely by their antecedents, must
have a character of uniformity, that is to say, must,
under precisely the same circumstances, always issue
in precisely the same results” (Buckle, Vol. I, Ch. 1).
Like Comte, he was convinced of the superiority of
European (and particularly English) culture and the
derivability of universal laws from its study. Marx also
generally wrote as if he regarded historical tendencies
to be akin to the operation of natural laws, having
universal applicability and “working out,” as he put
it in the Preface of the first edition of Das Kapital
(1867), “with iron necessity towards an inexorable
destination,” so that the laws of development operating
in industrially advanced countries “simply present the
other countries with a picture of their own future
development.” The most succinct statement of Marx's
views on cultural development is in the Preface to A
Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy
Kritik der politischen Oekonomie
), according to which
“the sum total of the relations of production constitutes
the economic structure of society—the real foundation,
on which rise legal and political superstructures and
to which correspond definite forms of social conscious-
ness.” In addition to his descriptive theory of socio-
cultural development Marx advanced a prescriptive
doctrine intended to meet the problem of alienation,
on which he had focused in his earliest writings and
in particular in The German Ideology (Die Deutsche
1846, with Engels). The theme of alienation
links Marx most intimately with the romantics, but
whereas Marx sought the cure of man's alienation in
the future, the romantics reverted to the past, finding
that man had taken the wrong turn by seeking libera-
tion from a traditional order of society.

Among attempts to reconcile traditionalism with
progressivism, or persistence with change, Herder's
treatment of Bildung and Tradition is undoubtedly the
most original contribution which still has lost none of
its relevance. Both these terms were used by him in
their original dynamic sense of “becoming” or “build-
ing up” and of “passing on,” respectively, and not in
their better-known acquired sense. Thus Bildung is not
equated with a particular state of development or
confined in its connotation to intellectual or strictly
individual pursuits. Instead it is viewed as an inter-
active social process in which men receive from and
add to their distinctive cultural heritage. The modern
concept of “socialization” comes, perhaps, closest to
Herder's interpretation of Bildung.

It is also of interest that Herder conferred upon
Bildung a distinctly dialectic meaning by identifying
it with evaluation as well as assimilation (Werke, XIII,
343-48). Thus understood, it is not simply a replicative
process but also a process of change. Indeed, Herder
saw in Bildung the only alternative to sociocultural
discontinuities attending the replacement of values
through their destruction rather than their trans-
formation. But he was aware that the merging of the
old and the new involves in its operation both affirma-
tive and negative properties, and that change is not


tantamount to a smooth advance or progress. Every
discovery in the arts and sciences, he wrote in the
Ideas, knits a new pattern of society. New situations
create new problems, and every increase in wants (even
if they are satisfied) does not necessarily augment
human happiness (ibid., XIII, 372-73).

Tradition, likewise, is not identified with a stock of
accumulated beliefs, customs, and ways of doing things,
but with an ongoing process of intergenerational trans-
mission. Bildung and Tradition entail culture as both
a product and an emergent force at any given time,
insofar as Bildung leads to shared patterns or forms
of life that have become “patterns” by virtue of a
greater or lesser degree of institutionalization through
Tradition. Although Herder opposed the idea of linear
progress, he nonetheless refused to view stages of de-
velopment in a dichotomous manner. Hence, in place
of the idea of polarity he advanced the idea of inter-
Tradition and progress no longer embody two
opposed tendencies, but a single continuum. Progress,
or more precisely change, becomes a built-in charac-
teristic of tradition, and development is seen, therefore,
as at once part of a given culture continuum and the
instrument for its transformation. It requires not only
historical antecedents but also emerging goals pointing
to the future. What is also worth noting is that, while
Herder admitted conflict and tension as potentially
inherent in the processes of Bildung and Tradition, he
categorically denied the possibility of complete discon-
tinuity within any given culture. In this he revealed
considerable astuteness. For it is difficult to see how
one can speak of “development” in terms of complete
or total change without raising serious problems of
identity. Finally, Herder's analysis of socialization as
a nonreplicative process and his interpretation of tra-
dition as a dialectic continuum clearly suggest that any
attempt to explain change must entail a recognition
of persistence or vice versa. A theory which cannot
account for both is therefore unlikely to account for