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…
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.
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.
 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: The Free Press, 1953), 17.
 Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932), 5