U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Climates of Opinion and Magic Words: Carl Becker

The first section of Carl Becker’s 1932 classic The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers is titled “Climates of Opinion.” In our present, any title with “Climate” in it quivers with a certain adumbration of doom, but Becker’s “climates” have (unsurprisingly) little to do with anthropogenic climate change or the geological/historical category of the Anthropocene. (That link will take you to a great recent essay regarding the disputes about where to begin dating this proposed new stratigraphic era and what kind of politics different starting points will entail.) In actuality, neither “climate” nor “opinion” seem to me to offer a fair indication as to how Becker uses the term, but regardless of its somewhat inapposite handle, it remains an intriguing concept that I wish to play with a little here.

Although the term is older, Becker’s immediate source for “climates of opinion” was Alfred North Whitehead’s 1925 Science and the Modern World, which is probably one of the three or four most influential books of that era that almost no one today seems to know ever existed. (It does play a cameo in Andrew Jewett’s Science, Democracy, and the American University, but then, Jewett’s work exhibits a level of scrupulousness and assiduity that few books can hope to attain. Like everyone who is not Andrew Jewett, I haven’t read it, although I plan to. More to come.) Here is Whitehead’s first use of the phrase:

General climates of opinion persist for periods of about two to three generations, that is to say, for periods of sixty to a hundred years. There are also shorter waves of thought, which play on the surface of the tidal movement. We shall find, therefore, transformations in the European outlook, slowly modifying the successive centuries. There persists, however, throughout the whole period [a] fixed scientific cosmology…[1]

There is a surprising affinity here between the system which Whitehead sketches and the tripartite model of history introduced by Fernand Braudel, a model which also—famously—took its inspiration from the sea. I mark this only in passing, but it is worth wondering—idly, at least—if Braudel could possibly have had any exposure to Whitehead’s book.

At any rate, the maritime basis for Whitehead’s vision does let in a meteorological meaning for “climates of opinion,” but it is not one that Becker takes up in any meaningful way. My conjecture, in fact, is that Becker was likely mixing Whitehead’s term quietly with the general drift of Hippolyte Taine’s celebrated trio “race-moment-milieu,” a formula which was supposed to encase a given individual’s thought and mold it from the outside. This is more or less how Becker describes the “climate of opinion.” Taking up two passages, one from Dante’s De Monarchia and one from Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, Becker professes to be unable to make proper sense of either, to be unable to decipher their strings of logic and weigh their points of emphasis intuitively. He concludes, “Whether arguments command assent or not depends less upon the logic that conveys them than upon the climate of opinion in which they are sustained.” He continues,

What renders Dante’s argument or St. Thomas’ definition meaningless to us is not bad logic or want of intelligence, but the medieval climate of opinion—those instinctively held preconceptions in the broad sense, that Weltanschauung or world pattern—which imposed upon Dante and St. Thomas a peculiar use of the intelligence and a special type of logic. To understand why we cannot easily follow Dante or St. Thomas it is necessary to understand (as well as may be) the nature of this climate of opinion.[2]

Becker has a little more fun with this concept through the rest of this chapter, turning the medieval climate of opinion into something that seems not only distant in time but almost extraterrestrial, as inhospitable as the climate of Mars or Venus. “We have now remained in the medieval climate of opinion as long as it is perhaps quite safe to do,” he jibes, and “we instinctively feel that in the climate of opinion which sustains such arguments [as those of the Middle Ages] we could only gasp for breath” (11, 12).

But there is another passage some 35 pages later which takes up a different trope: not climate, but architecture. I mean this post to have very little in the way of argument but something in the way of interest, and Becker is a much better writer than I am so I will simply let him take over:

If we would discover the little backstairs door that for any age serves as the secret entranceway to knowledge, we will do well to look for certain unobtrusive words with uncertain meanings that are permitted to slip off the tongue or the pen without fear and without research; words which, having from constant repetition lost their metaphorical significance, are unconsciously mistaken for objective realities. In the thirteenth century the key words would no doubt be God, sin, grace, salvation, heaven, and the like; in the nineteenth century, matter, fact, matter-of-fact, evolution, progress; in the twentieth century, relativity, process, adjustment, function, complex. In the eighteenth century the words without which no enlightened person could reach a restful conclusion were nature, natural law, first cause, reason, sentiment, humanity, perfectibility (these last three being necessary only for the more tender-minded, perhaps).

In each age these magic words have their entrances and exits. And how unobtrusively they come in and go out! We should scarcely be aware either of their approach or their departure, except for a slight feeling of discomfort, a shy self-consciousness in the use of them. The word “progress” has long been in good standing, but just now we are beginning to feel, in introducing it into the highest circles, the need of easing it in with quotation marks, the conventional apology that will save all our faces. Words of more ancient lineage trouble us more. Did not President Wilson, during the war, embarrass us not a little by appearing in public on such familiar terms with “humanity,” by the frank avowal of his love for “mankind”? As for God, sin, grace, salvation—the introduction of these ghosts from the dead past we regard as inexcusable, so completely do their unfamiliar presences put us out of countenance, so effectively do they, even under the most favorable circumstances, cramp our style. (47-48)

Becker is not saying anything that we do not know by now, I think. His “unobtrusive,” “magic words” point directly to Raymond Williams’s work in Culture and Society and, even more obviously, in Keywords (and then to texts like Daniel Rodgers’s Contested Truths: Keywords in American Politics since Independence). They also point more or less laterally/contemporaneously to the highly creative concern with the ideological usage of figurative language that we find in Kenneth Burke and V. N. Volosinov, and to the darker concerns of Thurman Arnold and Stuart Chase about the political ramifications of an excess of dead metaphors and lazy figures of speech.

At any rate, I find these passages in Becker to be refreshing and pleasurable, even if they are not entirely revelatory. It is enjoyable, I think, to see these ideas—the notion of a semiotic skeleton, a certain number of verbal bones that define the shape and sustains the motion of thought; the climate of opinion—in play at this time and in a mind of such agility and charm. I’ve written about Becker before here and here (published almost precisely one year ago); consider this another plea for a wider readership of his brilliant works.

[1] Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: The Free Press, 1953), 17.

[2] Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932), 5

13 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Great piece, Andy. I am in the process of becoming a crazy-eyed Whiteheadian, so I appreciate very much the discussion of SATMW. Whitehead seems always to have had enthusiastic French-speaking readers: Deleuze, for one, and now, of course, Whitehead’s greatest interpreter, Isabelle Stengers (whose Thinking With Whitehead may be, pound for pound, the best book I have ever read).

    And great catch, re: Becker and “keywords.” Fascinating discussion.

    • Ah, that’s great! I will definitely have to write more about Whitehead then, but I’d love to hear more from you about what has drawn you to him! Thanks, Kurt!

  2. In my high school history class the very first text we were given was Becker’s Heavenly City and we did a seriously close reading of it. Our teacher said that this was where had to begin and that book changed the way I saw the world. Thanks to this post I was able to go back and read the other posts on Becker which I somehow missed. (The volume of writing on this blog is impressive and hard to keep pace). I hope Becker comes back into “fashion”.

  3. An excellent, intriguing post on a good example of what Kenneth Burke variously called “casuistic stretching” or “metaphorical extension,” as a term associated with nature is carried over into discussions of social-cultural, political [eg, “political climate”] and historical phenomena. Now, as you suggest, the two domains are often brought together — metaphorically at least — in discussions of the climate of opinion on climate change [though on the blog, there hasn’t been much of the quivering you refer to as yet].

    On that score, a couple recent articles by Dipesh Chakrabarty are worth reading — “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35, Winter 2009, and more recently in “Climate and Capital: On Conjoined Histories,” Critical Inquiry 41, Autumn, 2014.

    In a quick look, I see that Burke doesn’t refer to Becker in Attitudes Toward History, but cites him in Grammar, as an illustration of the “scene-agent ratio.”

    “Terms for historical epochs, cultural movements, social institutions…are scenic, though often with an admixture of properties overlapping [with] agent. If we recall that ‘ideas’ are a property of agents, we can detect this strategic overlap in Locke’s expression, ‘the scene of ideas,’ the form of which Carl Becker exactly reproduces when referring to ‘climates of opinion….’” [12]

    Also, Robert Allen Skotheim edited The Historian and the Climate of Opinion, in 1969, and wrote in his introduction that

    “climate of opinion, like other similar phrases … such as the spirit of an age, refers to the fundamental assumptions and attitudes shared by significant elements of a population at a given time. The historian “selects and interprets data on the basis of what is meaningful and important to him …reflecting his climate of opinion, for he studies the past from the perspective of the present.” [1-2]

  4. Great post, Andy! I’m sad to say that I’ve never read Becker; now I will have to. To add one more footnote to the discussion: W.H. Auden uses the phrase “climate of opinion” in his great elegy for Freud (1939):

    if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd,
    to us he is no more a person
    now but a whole climate of opinion

    under whom we conduct our different lives:
    Like weather he can only hinder or help

    Becker’s book _Heavenly City_ was also iudirectly responsible for the title of a forgotten theological classic of the 1960s, Harvey Cox’s _The Secular City_. One day, I want to write something about Whitehead’s influence upon modern poetry–there’s a lot of Whitehead, I suspect, in Stevens and Auden. I can’t quite say why (something to do with the words “planetary” and “heaven” and the mocking approach to medieval asceticism, i.e. “flagellants”), but I feel the presence of both Becker and Whitehead (along with Santayana) in these lines from Stevens’s “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” (1923)

    Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame.
    Take the moral law and make a nave of it
    And from the nave build haunted heaven.

    Therefore, that in the planetary scene
    Your disaffected flagellants, well-stuffed,
    Smacking their muzzy bellies in parade,
    Proud of such novelties of the sublime,
    Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk,
    May, merely may, madame, whip from themselves
    A jovial hullabaloo among the spheres.

    Some recent literary scholars and philosophers are reviving interest in Whitehead:


  5. Oh, and I wanted to ask about the degree to which Becker’s method is still operative among intellectual historians today. Andy has already pointed us towards Raymond Williams and Daniel Rodgers’ focus on keywords. I wander how far back (and forwards) Becker’s method extends: aren’t there other major historians whose work might be said to focus on “certain unobtrusive words with uncertain meanings . . . . words which, having from constant repetition lost their metaphorical significance, are unconsciously mistaken for objective realities”? I’m thinking of rough contemporaries of Becker, folks like R.G. Collingwood, A.O. Lovejoy, and even perhaps Perry Miller (in his essay “The Rhetoric of Sensation”). To what extent does Becker’s approach anticipate the focus on “mentalites” in the second generation of Annalistes, or the “Cambridge school” model that we know so well today? Would it be fair to say that a book like the _Age of Fracture_ (I know, not again!) focuses on metaphors (of the market) as a primary clue to our era’s “climate of opinion,” much as Becker did with the medieval and Enlightenment period?

  6. After starting to reply individually, I figured it was better not to clutter the thread here with a lot of my comments.

    That’s really remarkable–you must have attended some kind of high school if they were giving you Becker to read! I think the book has had that kind of impact on a lot of readers, although it does have its detractors as well (Peter Gay is probably the most prominent).

    I’m so glad you brought Burke more directly into play here; I only gestured at an affinity between the two, but I suspect there is a great deal more to be said in terms of both what they share and where they diverge when it comes to language and its place in history.
    And as you very rightly point out, there has not been a great deal about climate change on this blog, though those articles you cite are extremely important. I also ran across just today this piece by Jedediah Purdy which looks like a sort of preview for his forthcoming book, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene. Maybe we’ll have more to say soon!

    Thank you so much for the Auden! And I am really amazed–between your and Kurt’s comments–that there appears to be a Whitehead revival ongoing: I had no idea! I really will have to pursue this trail a little further–it’s leading in all kinds of interesting directions.

    As for Becker’s method and its similarities/continuities to other intellectual/cultural historians, I feel like–well, first of all, I’d really like Dan Wickberg to address this question–but in a very general sense I see two kinds of intellectual histories making use of “keywords” or “magic words” or what have you, and their division is based on either a synchronic or a diachronic focus. I rather recklessly conflated the two in the post because I do think there is something shared, but I see it working out very differently if what one is doing with keywords is trying to reconstruct a whole “climate of opinion” or if one is tracking the change over time of a given concept. For instance, I recently read a fantastic monograph, Sophia Rosenfeld’s Common Sense: A Political History. It’s a wonderful diachronic retracing of the political career of the concept of “common sense” or, in some cases, “le bon sens,” which stops all over the northern Atlantic over a span of about three centuries. That, to me, is similar to Becker’s method in that it accumulates a field of interrelated words that unlock or reveal a particular narrative, but it is unlike Becker in that the field is vertically oriented rather than, as with a climate of opinion or a “spirit of the age,” horizontally oriented. I don’t know, does that make sense at all? Perhaps it is reductive.

  7. Andy (and Kurt),
    Guess where there happens to be a cite to Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World?

    In a book that neither of you, I’m sure, has read, because, very luckily for you, you have absolutely no reason to. I refer to (the late) Kenneth N. Waltz’s Theory of International Politics (1979), the rather turgid bible of so-called ‘structural realism’ in international-relations theory. Waltz is opposed to ‘reductionism’ and cites Whitehead’s SATMW briefly in that connection (in a footnote on p.19).

    This citation is liable to be lost, I would think, on most (though perhaps not all) IR grad students and professors who have been forced to read part or all of Waltz’s book. (Indeed, the prof who was my adviser mistakenly referred in print some years ago to Waltz’s having cited on this point a famous MIT biologist, or was it physicist. That, of course, was a different Whitehead. This little error was not something I had an opportunity to correct. It was of basically no consequence, appearing as it did in a very long book and noticed by no one, I suspect, except me. But I got a little wry amusement out of it.)

    I guess you can file this comment under Useless Factoids.

  8. Okay, Louis’s comment (#7, above) illustrates one thing that is great about this blog, and about academic blogging in general — the opportunity for breaking out of (or being broken out of) our grooves and finding new ways of thinking. (However, I wouldn’t bet that Andy and Kurt haven’t read that book!) But this isn’t a useless factoid at all — instead, it’s quite a useful one.

    On Whitehead and his uses, I was looking at a source from the late 1950s that alluded to Whitehead in passing when talking about curriculum reform as it relates to the teaching of Western Civ and the difference between a “settled past” (Whitehead’s term) and a useable past. I was a bit surprised to see the reference to Whitehead in this text, but that may speak more to lacunae in my reading on the late 1950s than it does on Whitehead’s ubiquity or (relative) obscurity at that time.

    However, I think some residue of “process theology” may stand behind (or “before”, as in, “in front of”?) the argument Livingston has been trying to make [about temporality and teleology] via Augustine. That dog won’t hunt — not with Augustine. But it might with Whitehead.

  9. @L.D.
    Interesting. Not sure I have more to say right now, but I wouldn’t anyway, because my old computer is on its last legs and I’m afraid it will crash again (as it did not long ago). I hate shopping for anything, but I have to get a new one. (Will ponder these matters offline for a while.)

    And completely OT, thought about (and linked on my blog to) your 2012 post about ‘city on a hill’ in connection w T. Cruz’s (ghastly) announcement speech, which I caught some of on the radio the other day.

  10. While I don’t want this to be a total hijacking of thread by Whitehead-iana, I do want to thank Louis for this IR ref to Whitehead.

    References to Whitehead pop up in all sorts of weird places. Joel Kovel’s extremely radical and prophetic book on whiteness and racism, White Racism, while mostly Freudian in emphasis, identifies ANW as the guiding muse. Nelson Goodman, who had been a student of ANW’s, also cites Whitehead a fair bit, or at least can be seen to be using his ideas, in Languages of Art.

    • In case it wasn’t already obvious, I should make clear that I’ve read very little Whitehead myself. Mostly just seen secondary references. (Not the two you just mentioned here, which are interesting.) I’d like to read him, though. He’s somewhere on the to-read list I keep fiddling with and re-arranging the priorities on.

  11. Andy–that distinction between the “diachronic” and the “synchronic” makes a lot of sense to me. It makes me want to read the Rosenfeld book, which I’ve been meaning to do anyway!

    L.D. is right: process theology is one of those academic places where Whitehead’s influence still looms very large. Catherine Keller’s “theology of becoming” has Whitehead written all over it. Can’t imagine Livingston is working with that set of theoretical coordinates, though. Maybe I’m missing something?

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