Introduction to the Philosophy Seminar – Part 1

How Do Cultural Shifts Happen? A lecture originally delivered online in Portuguese as an introduction for Mr. Olavo de Carvalho’s Brazilian Philosophy Seminar. 


I am going to provide you with an outline of the general program of the Philosophy Seminar, a course which will last for approximately five years. Keep in mind that this program, which I will delineate here in a rather vague manner, may be changed later, should that be necessary because of the performance of the students or should any other circumstance so require.

The general objective of this course is to prepare students to react philosophically to the cultural and historical changes taking place today. For this reason, I would like to start off by remarking that, as a rule, major cultural changes happen in a very peculiar manner, since rarely, if ever, is a body of ideas, values, and symbols abandoned because it has been directly confronted, refuted, or overcome. Rather, major changes in culture are usually a consequence of the substitution of a dominant intellectual class by a newly emerging one, having a distinct social origin and different concerns—that is, with its  attention focused on other themes and questions. Thus, along with the new intellectual class comes a new culture, which takes over society in such a way that the old one becomes incomprehensible and inaccessible in a very short period of time. So one should never mistake the historical supplantation of one cultural trend by another for an intellectually valid confrontation between a new culture and an older one. From the fact that a body of ideas has been abandoned historically, it does not necessarily follow that it has been refuted or impugned in any intellectually valid way whatsoever.

Actually, no such impugnation ever occurs. There are no examples in history of shifts in cultural trends that happened because an earlier prevailing body of ideas was actually examined and refuted by the advocates of a new intellectual order. Besides, rather than entailing a major cultural change, the scrutiny of a body of ideas presupposes the preservation of the cultural framework to which the ideas under discussion belong. That is to say, those people involved in examining and debating them are still discussing the same set of issues that spring from that framework.

Nietzsche once remarked that only that which is replaced is completely destroyed, and I think his observation serves well to summarize how a major cultural change really takes place. Because a shift in culture does not result from intellectual debate, but rather from the replacement of certain prevailing ideas with others in such a way that the previous ones are simply forgotten, left behind.  While certain ideas are still dominant, it is a fact that they have not been refuted in the public eye, and after they have been forgotten, what is the use of refuting them? As a result, the so-called “progress” of culture or “progress” of knowledge is in truth a series of instances of forgetting, of absolutely remarkable losses.

Besides, as the new ideas take the place of and no longer need to be confronted with the old ones, the number of intellectual perspectives available for judging the new preponderant ideas naturally decreases—a process which is somewhat uniform in the history of the West. Put another way, it is possible to observe in our civilization a general tendency towards uniformity resulting from the way cultural changes occur. For whenever certain prevailing intellectual perspectives are abandoned and new ones completely take their place, what follows is that the old conceptions gradually become unimaginable or unthinkable (except for a very small number of people who can still understand them). It is precisely because of this that new ideas are able to dominate the cultural scene with great freedom of action, for not only do they not need to be upheld against the previous culture, but also they only admit to be contradicted or discussed within their own intellectual framework. This, naturally, tends to reduce culture into a closed system.

In short, major cultural changes comprise two distinct processes: the forgetting of old ideas, through which the new generations educated within a new intellectual culture become unable even to imagine the previous one; and the complete elimination of old ideas, carried out to the point that the previous culture itself becomes inconceivable except in the form of simplified stereotypes created  by the new culture for the sole purpose of its own glorification.

This means that all cultural, intellectual “progress” actually consists in a series of impoverishments, of losses, in a series of memory losses, so to speak. But not only that, because when a loss of memory lasts long enough, it becomes a loss of capability; and specifically in the case of cultural changes, it becomes a complete loss of those intellectual and imaginative capabilities required to comprehend a previous culture.

In periods of cultural change the new ideas emerge as overwhelmingly powerful, like a large mass of water that takes over an empty space. For this reason they easily become  instruments of social action and produce social changes at a rather fast pace—a phenomenon that can be observed throughout the last four or five centuries. A case in point is the rise of the so-called “humanist” class around the 1500s. The humanists, as opposed to the previous class of intellectuals, no longer had a scholastic philosophical education. They received an education in rhetoric based on the rhetoricians of antiquity—especially Quintilian and Cicero—and devoted themselves to the literary and the language arts. Their particular field of expertise was, therefore, the art of persuasion, and they soon began to apply the rules of ancient rhetoric to their own national literatures and write in their own national languages, which enabled them to gain a large readership among the European nobility, a class which had been completely alien to the world of higher culture during the Middle Ages.

The medieval nobility was characterized by its utter lack of education. Consider, for example, Charlemagne, during whose government, by the way, the first universal literacy project was launched. He remained illiterate until he was thirty-two years old, and he only consented to be educated after much insistence. The learning of literacy, it was then thought, was an occupation suitable either for monks or for women; noblemen were not supposed to devote themselves to such a thing.

However, it was precisely among Europe’s dominant class, the aristocracy, that a new culture became quickly widespread soon after the appearance of the humanists. This success among the nobility, as I have pointed out before, was due to the fact that the humanists wrote in their own national languages and no longer used the highly complex logical techniques of scholasticism (which were instruments of proof), but employed instruments of persuasion (that is, of psychological action).

But if we ask ourselves whether in that period there was any intellectual confrontation between the humanists and the schoolmen, the answer is that, in fact, there was none. Humanism merely took over an empty space, and quite naturally the previous culture was left behind.

Not long after that, when the so-called modern scientific culture arises with Newton, Bacon, Galileo, and the like, once again the same phenomenon takes place. What could have remained of the scholastic culture is once again set aside in favor of a new rising culture, which in addition came with a promise of certain technological applications that could directly result in an expansion of the power of the dominant classes. Thus, to say that the modern scientific culture brought about progress in knowledge is a complete mistake. One could say that it brought about a very profound social change, but not that knowledge as such progressed. For there is progress only when a previously conquered territory is preserved, absorbed, expanded and transcended into a larger structure.

Besides, the few historical instances of an objectively verifiable progress in knowledge are quite different from those major cultural changes, from those events which Thomas Kuhn, for example, calls “scientific revolutions.” In fact, the so-called “scientific revolutions” do not bring about progress of any sort; they merely produce a change of perspective, and, as we know, a change of directions is not necessarily  progress. To progress is to go further in the same direction.  For example, if  a person changes  his activity altogether, or if  he changes  the subject completely during a discussion, then  he does not even have means for comparing what he is doing now with what he did before, for one thing has simply nothing to do with the other.


Student: When you examine the major cultural changes in the West taking into account those distinctions you have mentioned,  are there any historical examples of  real advance, of actual progress in cultural matters?


Olavo de Carvalho: Yes, there are. When you consider, for instance, the evolution of Christian doctrine, from the first fathers to scholasticism, you can see that there was a real progress in Christian theology; for nothing was lost, the former culture was not left behind. All that had been achieved in a previous stage of Christian thought was assimilated and merged with new elements into a new theoretical scheme. This is what happened, for example, with all the novel elements that had been absorbed from Aristotle. When St. Albert the Great and Saint Thomas Aquinas began reading Aristotle and then trying to formulate Christian doctrine in Aristotelian terms, they did not simply forsake the former steps taken by Christian doctrine and move on. Rather, they rearranged them into a new theoretical framework. So, nothing was lost, and this is precisely what always needs to be done. So, you can say that from the early fathers up to scholasticism actual progress happened. Finally, bear in mind that all of this  took place within the same culture—there was no cultural revolution, no breaking apart from the previous stages of Christian culture.

However, with the emergence of the humanists, there was a rupture. To me, one of the most obvious things about the humanists—when you read Erasmus, for example, or even Descartes (who had studied with representatives of scholasticism)—is that they do not quite understand what the schoolmen were doing. The humanists then created a new image of the scholastics that had nothing to do with the historical reality of scholasticism, but that had a lot to do with the self-justification and self-glorification of the newly emerging culture.

When the Enlightenment culture arose, it was also the result of this same sort of mutation I have been talking about. It was a new culture that surged into being thanks to the emergence of a new class of intellectuals and that represented a break with the previous cultural regime.

The Enlightenment intellectuals, however, were not humanists or scholars like Erasmus and they were not  schoolmen, nor natural scientists. They were a fourth type of intellectuals: they were the precursors of present-day journalists. Voltaire, for example, was not an old-style rhetorician, a scholastic philosopher, or a natural scientist. So what was he then? He was a journalist; in fact, the first modern journalist. We can say that it was during the Enlightenment period that the concept of an opinion-maker was born. These new intellectuals, these opinion-makers, constituted a distinct social class with  a distinct social origin, and they quickly created a series of new trends that reshaped culture and rendered both scholasticism, and the direct predecessors of the Enlightenment virtually incomprehensible.

For instance, when you compare the entire work of Isaac Newton and those parts of it which Voltaire selected and summarized in his book The Elements of Newton’s Philosophy, you realize that there are two different Isaac Newtons: the historical Newton and a version of Newton adapted to serve the purposes of the Enlightenment—Sir Isaac Newton as portrayed by Voltaire.

The Voltairian Newton is so radically different from the historical one that it is hard to see any similarity between them. Historically, Newton’s basic purpose was to restore a kind of prophetic science that could allow him to interpret history in light of the Bible. That was the purpose behind all of his works, including his works on physics. The intellectuals of the Enlightenment, however, misrepresented Newton: they took his physics, cut it off from the rest of his work, and threw the remainder away in order to create a pseudo-historical Newton adapted to meet the needs of their rising culture.

From the point of view of a person who seeks to acquire high culture—whether he is a university student, a seminarian, or anything else—, the self-legitimating proclivity built into every cultural paradigm means that a significant part of his education will consist in the falsification and obliteration of the past. In other words, the culture of the time in which a person lives shapes his mindset; and it does so particularly by teaching him what is to be rejected or left behind. This happens because self-glorification is an important component of every culture. The idea of historical progress, for example, is built into the self-glorifying proclivity of a culture as a permanent self-legitimating mechanism.

A most remarkable thing is what happens to people who are historical relativists, who are not supposed to believe in any kind of historical progress. In theory they indeed claim that historical progress does not exist and that nobody should think about history in terms of more and less advanced ages, but in practice they consider themselves far superior to all those who came before them. So, even historical relativists cannot escape the worldview created by the ideology of progress.

Now, progress as a fact is one thing, progress as an ideology quite another. The existence of progress is a fact that cannot be denied, since it is true that sometimes things do indeed get better (even though it is also true that some other times they get worse). And since the existence of a number of instances of actual progress is an indisputable historical reality, it is not possible for someone to reject the idea of progress (as historical relativists do).

However, if it is true that nobody can be seriously against it, it is also true that nobody can be seriously in favor of the “progressivist concept of history.”

Let us consider this conception of progress and see whether it is a scientifically viable notion. What is progress? What does it mean? “Progress” is a unit of measure generally used to assess whether a certain previous time in history reached an expected level of advancement or not. But what is the opposite of progress? Is it being behindhand, delayed? Or is it being backward? Well, since time only moves forward, and given that it is absolutely impossible for it to move backwards, the concept of backwardness does not make any sense.

Besides, since every process in time implies change, and since in any given period of history some things decay and some others flourish, then any time in history can be regarded as progressive in some respect and as decadent in some other. No historical time, however, can be logically seen as being behindhand or delayed in terms of development. There is no becoming delayed or behindhand in history because there is no such thing as a historical schedule that all civilizations, all societies, must follow. In history, there is no predetermined date and time at which a society should obligatorily reach a stage of development. Thus the idea that a society or civilization can be belated in development is simply a mindless logical byproduct of the idea of progress. Even though we can say that a society has progressed, we cannot say that a society is behindhand or belated. Progress is a historically existing phenomenon; belatedness is not. We cannot say, for example, that a society that has remained unchanged for five thousand years is “belated.” Even though this society may be seen as lagging behind when compared to some other, this really does not matter, because the comparatively underdeveloped society is not actually part of the other. Now, a society may always abandon its own criteria for evaluating its progress, begin to judge itself by the degree of development of another, and arrive at the conclusion that it is “belated;” but this would be the end of this society.

In short, the idea of a belated society is self-contradictory, because there is no way a society can fall behind a universal schedule of development that is actually nonexistent. The notion of progress, however, can be accepted as scientifically valid.


Student: But it is possible to measure progress within a single culture, right? According to your theory of previously achieved levels of development, for example, one can do this by verifying whether the new generations have reached the level of development set by the prior cultural stages in a society.


Olavo: Yes, it is possible, but only within a single culture. Yet, even when a new generation has not reached the level of development set by the previous generations, you cannot say the new generation is behindhand or delayed. But what you can say is that the culture has deteriorated.

It is not hard for anyone to understand what deterioration is. Anyone who has ever been healthy and got sick, or who has had a lot of money and lost it, knows what deterioration is. The word “deterioration” does correspond to real phenomena, and more than that, deterioration, in its various manifestations, is a permanent fact, a permanent possibility of human life. Belatedness or behindhandedness, on the other hand, only exists as a real phenomenon where there is a predetermined scale or schedule of progression. For example, when it takes longer than the time estimated by someone for him to attain a goal he set for himself, then we can say he is belated. Historically, however, I do not think that it is possible to say with any seriousness that a society or a culture is behindhand in respect of progress.

When people classify this or that society or culture as “belated,” what  they are actually doing is measuring a certain culture’s or society’s level of progress by the standards of some other, based upon the completely stupid assumption that one society should be just like the other. And this assumption becomes particularly stupid when people judge their own culture based upon it, because their measurement of their own culture’s degree of progress by the standards of another actually amounts to destroying their culture. For when a culture accepts to be measured by the standards of another, then it means this culture has already lost its autonomy and become merely a subculture of the other. This culture would have to destroy itself, to cease to be itself in order to enter on the track of progress.

Now, even if it can be proven that, historically speaking, it does not make any sense to say that behindhandedness is the opposite of progress, reasoning in terms of progress and belatedness is such an entrenched practice in our present culture that it has almost become an automatism.

People talk about “delayed” societies. They say that Zambia, for instance, is a delayed society. But in relation to what standard of progress is it behindhand? Do they mean that Zambia should be New York City? Where did they get the idea that one society should be like another? It makes no sense. One could say that the situation in Zambia is terrible, that Zambian people are starving to death, that the country is ruined, and so on, but they cannot say that Zambia is behindhand in respect of progress. Saying that a society is belated, stuck in a time warp, delayed in its progress, and the like has become a surrogate for expressing a negative judgment about that society. For example, to avoid saying that a certain society is in a terrible situation, people will say that it is “delayed.”

The problem is that when people enter the realm of high culture the first thing they receive is the impact of the current high culture, and along with it they also receive all its limitations, all of its intellectual blinders, prohibitions, prejudices which will allow those people to develop only in certain directions. This means that the mere existence of an established culture implies the concomitant existence of, so to speak, predetermined intellectual careers. That is to say, a predetermined blueprint for each and every intellectual profession.


End of the first part.


Olavo de Carvalho is the President of The Inter-American Institute and Distinguished Senior Fellow in Philosophy, Political Science, and the Humanities.

The opinions published here are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by the Institute. This lecture was delivered online in December 2008. Translation from the Portuguese by Alessandro Cota and proofreading by Benjamin Mann.