Magazine article The Spectator

The Search for a Third Culture

Magazine article The Spectator

The Search for a Third Culture

Article excerpt

The search for a third culture

Hugh Lawson-Tancred

A TERRIBLE BEAUTY: A HISTORY OF THE PEOPLE AND IDEAS THAT SHAPED THE MODERN MIND by Peter Watson Weidenfeld & Nicolson, L25, pp. 847 Is it still a coherent project to attempt to achieve a standpoint from which the general output of our culture can be consistently, if selectively, surveyed? Of course, no one can combine a grasp of, say, superstring theory with an illuminative empathy with the works of Joyce, Nabokov and Bellow. But is it even possible to fit the rampant heterogeneity of modern culture into a single framework at all?

Not only might it seem that the `Snow line' dividing the arts and sciences has opened up like some tectonic chasm presiding over the bifurcation of infant continents, but even within each discipline a cacophony of discord appears to prevail and the predominant worldviews are conspicuous for nothing so much as their mutual incompatibility, while philosophy has retreated to the foothills of mathematical logic or wandered into the luxuriant superfoliation of the rhetorical jungle.

It is the abdication of philosophy which, for many, is the fundamental betrayal. As late as the age of Hegel it was natural to regard the subject as the `arbiter of culture', integrating the findings of art, religion and science. But in the 20th century this role was abandoned by the two protagonist schools. Analytical philosophy has become more and more a `handmaiden of the sciences', while continental philosophy, with its unlovely periphery of critical theory, structuralism, semiotics and postmodernism, has always been flawed by an unwarranted obsession with the discredited kerygmata of Marx and Freud.

In the midst of the prevailing gloom, Peter Watson has devoted almost 800 pages to demonstrating that despair is not the only counsel when contemplating the gamut of 20th-century thought. Through the convoluted perplexity of this minefield of a subject he is propelled by the well nigh irresistible force of his own narrative verve, before which there is nothing so abstruse, arcane, perverse, provocative, sinister, wrong-headed or downright odious in his story but it is gathered into the abundant harvest that is A Terrible Beauty. …

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