Work in Progress: The Other Enlightenment Nation-State

I have now been in Brazil for two weeks, and, if everything transpires according to my design, I will be home again in a few days. Since last Friday’s newsletter, I have spent time in the charming historical town of Paraty, and now I am in Rio de Janeiro. Traveling in Brazil has not satisfied my appetite, but only whetted it. I would be happy to return for an extended period of time, and to see other regions of the country, especially the Baroque architecture of Minas Gerais in cities like Ouro Preto.

I brought a couple of books with me relevant to Brazil, A Century of Brazilian History Since 1865, a collection of essays edited by Richard Graham, and The Masters and the Slaves: A Study in the Development of Brazilian Civilization, by Gilberto Freyre. Both books have been helpful. As it turns out, the book by Freyre is considered one of the major sociological studies of Brazil, and a classic in its own right. I had both of these books because whenever I am in a used book store and I see one of the volumes of the series Borzoi Books on Latin America I buy it, and years of collecting have assembled not the total set, but a majority of the titles. I’m still missing several titles in the series that I would like to acquire.

In any case, the work of Gilberto Freyre has come to interest me, and I hope to follow up on this when I get home, specifically, obtaining an unabridged copy of The Masters and the Slaves, as well as his book The Mansions and the Shanties. Freyre’s work belongs to an entire world of scholarship that has fallen under a cloud, and which will probably be neglected for some time to come. Freyre primarily employs qualitative concepts, and in an age of the unquestioned authority of the quantitative concept, the qualitative concept seems like either a counterfeit or an anachronism.

I am, of course, primarily interested that Freyre chooses to formulate his analysis as being one of Brazilian civilization, to which he refers throughout the text. That there is a distinct Brazilian civilization, and it stands in relationship to a larger Lusophone entity, is a question not unlike whether there is an distinct American civilization (something I wrote about years ago; cf. American Civilization and Appalachia and American Civilzation), and that this American civilization stands in some relationship to a larger Anglosphere. However, we would — I would go so far as to say we should — classify both Brazilian civilization and American civilization under the larger construct of Western civilization.

Do the Lusophone world and the Anglosphere have any claims to being civilizations, at some level of abstraction? Is there an Anglophone civilization constituted by the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand? Freyre also refers to European civilization and even to Portuguese civilization. How broadly should we construe Portuguese civilization? Does it coincide with the Lusophone world, including parts of Africa and India?

Within the larger construct of Western civilization, Brazilian civilization and American civilization have certain important similarities that relate them to the Enlightenment project, which has come to define Western civilization since modernity. In this, each represents a different articulation of the future of Western civilization (if it has a future). There is an old joke that Brazil is the country of the future, and it always will be. There is in this, as in most jokes, some truth. One might also say that America is the country of the future, and it always will be, or, more ominously, America was once the country of the future, but the future is no longer what it once was.

We could call Brazil “the other Enlightenment nation-state,” since Brazil, like the United States, is explicitly and officially committed to Enlightenment values. Whereas in the United States the emphasis is upon liberty and individualism, in Brazil the emphasis is upon order and progress (it says so right on the flag). It would be a marvelous thing if we could find a way to reconcile liberty with order and individualism with progress, but these are the fundamental internal conflicts of Enlightenment civilization that will not be resolved as long as Enlightenment ideology remains in the vanguard of history. And if any “solution” is found to the intrinsic problems of Enlightenment civilization, this solution would mark the emergence of a new kind of civilization that would have its own, different internal conflicts. This latter observation is a principle of civilization that I have often formulated, but I haven’t explicitly named this idea (at least, I don’t remember naming this idea), so I really need to come up with a name to explicitly identify this idea.

In Paraty I took a lot of notes on the nature of science (the pages of my notebook are noticeably damp from the humidity), following up on my musings from earlier this year about the reticulate structure of science in history (which I developed in a series of articles in the big history newsletter EMERGENCE). I kept working on these themes in my mind, so that leaving Paraty and during the five and a half hour bus journey from Paraty to Rio de Janeiro I began to formulate a much more ambitious plan for my project that I have been calling Scientific Civilization. The Scientific Civilization manuscript is derived from a series of blog posts in which I have examined in detail some off-hand remarks mentioning “scientific civilization,” specifically comments by Jacob Bronowski, Susanne Langer, Edmund Husserl, among others (cf. “Pathways into the Deep Future,” “The Role of Science in Enlightenment Universalism,” and “The Infinite telos of Reason: Edmund Husserl and Scientific Civilization”).

I have a detailed outline of how these blog posts would be integrated into a larger manuscript. In newsletter 138 I posted this table of contents for the project:

  1. Preface: Science at the Scale of Civilization
  2. Introduction: What is a civilization, and, more specifically, what is a scientific civilization?
  3. Bertrand Russell and Sigmund Freud
  4. Jacob Bronowski and Michael Moravcsik
  5. Susanne Langer and Nikolay Danilevskii
  6. Edmund Husserl and the Infinite telos of Reason
  7. Helmut Schelsky and Metaphysical Sociology
  8. The Infinite Horizon of Science: Civilization at the Scale of Science
  9. Appendix: Theses on Civilization and on Scientific Civilization
  10. Annotated Bibliography

I also have another manuscript I have been working on over the past year called “Science on Other Worlds,” which discusses how science could, and hopefully will, expand once it is possible to do science on a large scale beyond Earth. Yes, there are some scientific experiments that are performed on the ISS, but this is only a small foretaste of the science that could be done on other worlds, as well as the science that could be done on no world at all, on scientific research stations in space, where experiments could be done on a far larger scale than anything possible on Earth.

So I realized I could combine these two projects, with this overall structure:

Scientific Civilization

Part I: Conceptions of Scientific Civilization

Part II: Manifest Destiny of Scientific Civilization

Acting upon this plan would make me alter the above outline a bit. Specifically, the material in sections 1, 2, and 9 in the outline would be either moved to a preface or Part II, while the rest would go into Part I, and Part I would include additional sections that would contrast explicitly remarks about scientific civilization with scientific civilization as I understand it according to my model. Part II would then also incorporate the ideas from “Science on Other Worlds.”

Thinking about this expanded project (which I rather like), I came back to my old idea of summarizing my research into civilization in a work that would be very short but systematic and specific, which work would be a necessary introduction to this or to any of the other works on civilization that I have outlined in these newsletters. Now I finally have a title for this project: Prolegomenon to the Study of Civilization, or, alternatively, Prolegomenon to the Scientific Study of Civilization. Probably I will go with the former.

In my previous newsletter I began to formulate some ideas that I characterized as a thermodynamic approach to ontology, or an ontological approach to thermodynamics. I have continued to think about this. It is a long way from a mature formulation, but this is important to me as I have, in the past, posed to myself some riddles of history formulated in thermodynamic terms. If I could put together a completely formal conception of thermodynamics expressed in ontological terms, I could then apply this ontological formulation to my historical formulations, and perhaps make progress on an old difficulty of mine.

It would be an obvious observation that why things remain where we put them (which also could be expressed in terms of why objects retain their integrity over time, which is more in accord with contemporary ontology’s focus on objects), is that there is some kind of principle of ontological inertia that holds, such that objects remain as they are unless perturbed by an outside force. This accords well with parsimony, since the simplest state-of-affairs is when there is no outside force to perturb said object. However, if there were a principle of ontological inertia at work, why would molecules of gas disperse themselves when an opening is made between a container full of gas and an empty container? Is the entirety of the outside world a perturbing force that acts in this particular case upon the molecules of gas? This may be the case, but the peculiarity of thought experiments is to hide from us the entirety of the world except for that which is admitted under a given scheme of scientific abstraction.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store