Robert Nisbet
Robert Nisbet; drawing by David Levine

We are beset with books that look serious and important. They come from respectable publishers. Some of them are by new writers, some by men of established reputation; and of these many are useful and well written and a few are stunning in their accomplishment. Some may be left to drop out of sight, to end on the remainder tables of the bookshops. Of those that are neither useful nor accomplished a few are symptomatic, in that they tell us something about the state of the learned world out of which they come.

The books by Professor Nisbet, Peckham, and Smith are all of them curious in their different ways. They are, respectively, a scissors-and-paste job, and a dull one, on the history of a great idea: an exposition of what is claimed to be a revolutionary theory of language, a theory with vast social implications; and a set of pronouncements, savage and bilious, on how the world is going.

I begin with Professor Smith. One who has lived a long time and seen a lot happen is entitled to sound off about what is going on in the world, though not all times and places are right for doing this. It may be done in a bar or in a faculty common room, with cronies; some do it talking to themselves as they grimace in a mirror. A great man much given to witty complaints (Doctor Johnson, say) may have his remarks copied down and posterity will be glad about this. But consider some of the remarks written down by Professor Smith and published in a book belonging to a series all the members of which are designed to leave us better and wiser. (We are told that “It is the thesis of World Perspectives that man is in the process of developing a new consciousness which…can eventually lift the human race above and beyond the fear, ignorance, and isolation which beset it today.”)

American medical missions must bear a great part of the blame for the population explosion….

Biblical laws, like those of most primitive peoples, were made for small groups living in small communities with strong group discipline; they were to regulate the members’ behavior towards each other, not towards outsiders. “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,” meant “Thou shalt love thy fellow Israelite as thyself.”

The rising rate of production…has created enormous demands for labor and pulled whole tides of men…from one country into another—Turks and Greeks, Yugoslavs and Italians into Germany…; Mexicans into the southern United States, southern negroes [sic] into the north, and so on [italics added].

If a healthy competent man has nothing better to do than tend the sick and incompetent, what are health and competence for?

It is…not surprising that sadists (including vandals) have become more common in western society, but they have particularly increased in recent years as we have taken more care to assure the survival of those for whom it would have been better not to have survived.

…two forms of hope for universal dominion, religious and political, remained closely connected till the end of World War II. “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun never sets on the British Empire.” He was all but metrically equivalent with [sic] Queen Victoria.

The project [i.e., government approval of homosexuality with a view to bringing about a decline in the birth rate] could count on vigorous support from artists and intellectuals; the main interest of the avant-garde is the derrière.

I have noted many other examples of Smith’s wit and wisdom, enough to fit out a calendar with mottoes, but these are a representative selection. Recklessness and a short way with hard problems, such things are common enough in unconsidered talk; and the remarks have a touch of vulgarity—the last two examples bring this out most plainly—that is all his own. As to the view that the Biblical command to love one’s neighbor has nothing to do with those outside the ethnic group, I find it hard to think Smith is ignorant of Leviticus 19:34 or of the parallel passage in Deuteronomy. That he thinks of the Black migration from the south to the north of the United States as an example of those going from one country to another tells us much about his standpoint. It is perhaps a simplified version of Maurras’s doctrine of the métèques and of the derived doctrine expressed (and later repented of) by Eliot in After Strange Gods.

Most human beings have always hoped for something. Smith is thus able to rummage through history and pick out a great many hopes that have given certain times their peculiar tone. Many hopes, we are told, are defeated and this is sad; many are poorly grounded and this shows how ignorant and foolish men are. Hope is not mere longing, it is tied to possibility, not always true possibility, for we may in confusion hope for what is naturally impossible, but possibility as we think it to be. The great hopes for the secular or religious salvation of the race are thought by Smith to be ill-grounded, for he judges the state of things hoped for naturally impossible. Hope is a happy expectation that something good will come about in the future; if we expect something bad to happen we cannot, unless we are untypically malicious, be said to hope for it.


Smith would have been wise to stay with this commonsensical account of “hope” and “to hope” and their derivatives, and with ruminations, however platitudinous, on the fortunes of the idea. However, he now and then inserts an account of hope and hoping as something that runs through the world of inanimate nature and that is connected in the case of men with states and activities of the central nervous system. He does not explain why this is important.

The argument seems to go like this. There are common patterns running through the whole of nature. A fire (this is his own example) behaves like an animal. “It seizes, devours, digests, and excretes…it moves about as if pasturing.” It explodes in orgasm and begets other fires. We thus find in physical processes the analogy of purpose; and Smith seems to suggest that here we have a clue to the understanding of what looks like purposive behavior in the brutes and even in vegetables. The site of purpose in human beings is said to be “the subconscious mind.” (I suspect “unconscious” is intended, but Smith is not consistent in his use of such terminology; he gives the Ego, for example, the functions of the Superego.)

At the same time, having, as it were, left aside consciousness on the ground that it is an insoluble problem, he looks for “a physiological definition” of hope, on the ground, so far as I can see, that “research in neurosurgery and in the effects of drugs on ‘the mind’ have all but demonstrated that ‘the mind’ is a set of functions of the nervous system.” From this we proceed swiftly, by way of what Smith takes to be Skinner’s truism, that “we do not kick because we are angry; we both are angry and kick because of some physiological change,” to the conclusion that “our conscious hopes are epiphenomena of such physiological changes; ‘unconscious hopes’ may therefore refer to structures in the nervous system, and the system’s consequent tendencies.”

Even if this argument made sense, it isn’t clear what it is doing, or what its usefulness is, in a general account of hope in human history. Commonly Smith assumes that our ordinary discourse is good enough to talk about his subject; what is gained by such occasional excursions into talk about the nervous system isn’t clear. If he wants to stress an account of thinking that is reductive in the Skinnerian sense, then what he does is self-destructive, for it is a presupposition of his book that his argument has force through its making sense in the public language. If he is angry about the conduct of American medical missions or whatever, then his anger arises out of his understanding of what makes him angry, whatever the physiological changes associated with his anger.

Smith’s view of the direction of Western society is pretty fairly summed up in the following passage.

…in America and Europe professional criminals, protected by organized pity, increase daily. So do professional welfare recipients, our new leisure class. So do the insane. Pity makes discipline difficult, protects lazy workers and students, and, for their sakes, penalizes good ones who are denied the opportunities and consequences of rising in their employment or mastering their studies because the lazy will not. Wherever one turns in this culture one finds rot protected by pity.

It is true, at the end of the book we are reminded that there are deep hopes “for life, for power, for knowledge.”

Living, knowing, and acting are the forms in which and by which man becomes. Not “becomes this” or “becomes that,” but simply, constantly becomes; is not a fixed, bored being, but a living, acting man, an ever-changing consciousness, an understanding steadily extending its reach.

This is no doubt intended to cheer us up; or perhaps it is Smith’s contribution to the “new consciousness” adumbrated by World Perspectives.

Explanation and Power begins with a set of large questions. What is language? What is meaning? What is explanation? These questions have been thought about with great intensity for a long time now, by philosophers of logic such as Frege and Russell and Wittgentein, by such theorists of criticism as Ogden and Richards—The Meaning of Meaning is historically important as a sharpener of debate, even if its main thesis is wrong—and by those working in the new discipline of linguistics. It would appear that Professor Peckham has set himself a difficult task. But he doesn’t seem to feel committed by his choice of topics to carry out the task of establishing what the state of the question is. Frege and Russell, Ogden and Richards, are absent from his pages. Chomsky is once referred to; Peckham remarks that Chomsky’s notion of the deep structure of language is “merely” an example of what he (Peckham) calls “normative regress.” The one reference to Wittgenstein is wild: “Some philosophers, led by Wittgenstein, have proposed that an unequivocal meaning can be discovered from the use of a word.” There is not a single passage in Wittgenstein or in any of those who stand in his tradition that would justify such a view. What Wittgenstein did, and this may be the source of Peckham’s misunderstanding, was to give the advice: Don’t ask for the meaning, ask for the use!—this, as a means of solving certain philosophical puzzles, such as those which arise out of identifying the meaning of a word (in an uttered sentence) with its ostensible reference.


Peckham tells us that the “fundamental proposition of this book” is: “The meaning of any utterance or any sign is the response to that utterance or sign.” From this there follows in his judgment a chain of argument in the course of which some remarkable theses are asserted: nothing can be grasped except as sign—our cognitive relations with the world are “semiotic transactions”; a source of perplexity is our false belief that meaning is immanent in words, expressions, and sentences; speaking is behavior, just like running or blinking, so that what we say in reply to proposition p, or as comment (out loud or silently on p, or as gesture, or presumably as simply rehearsing the sentence as we read or hear it, is a response to p, and therefore the meaning of p. And since there can be many responses, and since to assert that any one response is the correct response is just another piece of behavior that is either self-justifying (we are at the end of an explanatory regress) or rests upon a justification further back in the process of explanation, it is a superstition to suppose there is a real meaning of p.

The book contains many slighting remarks about philosophy and philosophers, and most of what is said rests upon ignorance or misunderstanding. I suggest that closer attention to the work of philosophers would have enabled Peckham to look critically at his own intuitions and hunches and would have kept him from falling into pits of his own digging.

Take, for example, one of his most strenuously asserted positions, that meaning is not immanent in language. First, he seems to think that meaning is immanent, or it is not, that is, that we are faced with a clear position, and its denial. Now, we must surely suppose that when people have spoken as though meaning were immanent they have had reasons for doing so; and that when they have asserted that, on the contrary, meaning is a matter of conventions and stipulations they have also had reasons for doing so. A natural language is something given; we don’t make it up, we receive it’ and learn its semantic and syntactical rules as we grow up; even when we stipulate that we are going to use a given word in a restricted or odd sense, this operation can only be understood as an exception. All this means that we are right in thinking of meaning as something that is not given by us to the language but that belongs to the language as we receive it. On the other hand, since there are many natural languages, since artificial languages can be constructed, it looks as if languages are matters of convention; and since the number of entirely novel expressions we can coin, without violating the syntax received with the language, is without limit, and since what is to count as a violation is a matter for decision, then the notion that meanings are immanent in linguistic acts seems an absurd misunderstanding.

There is nothing wrong with either of these positions. What this means is that the thesis that meaning is immanent isn’t a question of truth or falsity, of being right or being absurd. It stands in need of interpretation, and interpretation gets its point from a particular context of puzzlement and inquiry as well as from the place of the problem within the general field of linguistic study.

A part of Peckham’s doctrine that meaning is response seems to be that understanding a statement is receiving an instruction, and that in certain central cases it is plain what we are being told to do. This seems difficult. It seems obvious that statements can function as instructions only in virtue of what they mean (just as the sign red means stop only in virtue of an already understood convention). It also seems obvious that in standard cases agreement on the meaning may be presupposed and that, again in standard cases, knowing what a statement means involves knowing what the truth conditions for asserting it would be. It doesn’t seem a peculiar thesis open to dispute that “A is to the north of B” is true if and only if A is to the north of B. This is something all philosophical theories have to cover.

I find it, therefore, impossible to understand what Peckham means when he says, for example, that “when we affirm that a statement is true, we are only asserting that it ought to control our behavior,” or—still more puzzling: “A descriptive statement, such as ‘That meadow is brown from the drought,’ is an instruction to perform looking at the meadow and to explain its color, to the exclusion of other behavior or performances.” This seems to neglect the truism, as I take it to be, that it is in virtue of the meaning of the sentence that we can use it to make a (true or false) statement, or incorporate it in a fictional narrative, or to warn, or to instruct.

The most distressing thing about this would-be revolutionary book is that it contains serious mistakes a learned man ought in prudence to have avoided. Here is a selection.

Modern analytical philosophy…is full of statements about what the meanings of words really are. These statements often take the form of saying that a certain word refers to, or properly refers to, such-and-such. But “refers” here is obviously metaphorical. A word does not refer. Persons refer.

No references are here given; there could be none, for the very point made here by Peckham is a commonplace in the work of e.g., Ryle, Austin, and Malcolm. I should doubt his being able to find one statement of the kind he objects to in a single philosopher of the modern and analytical kind.

“Before ’cause’ is anything else, before it is a notion, or an idea, or a concept, ’cause’ is a word.” This won’t do, for it is only in virtue of its having a sense that we know “cause” to be a word and not a mere noise or a squiggle on paper.

We are told that the categorical imperative of Kant is: “Always act as if your action were the right action for all men.” It is not easy to see what compliance with such an imperative would be; in any case, this formula is not to be found in Kant.

The practical conclusion of Peckham’s argument is that our best hope is for governments to exploit “ideological instability” and with a judicious combination of rewards and punishments enable most men to enjoy the pleasures of a relatively tranquil society. This conclusion is said to follow from a complicated argument (of which the basic proposition seems to be that reponses to signs are random). I find it impossible to summarize. Here is something like a grand conclusion.

…the only fruitful ideological commitment is a commitment to an ideology of noncommitment. Were that established, then a truly democratic social situation might emerge—not one that is free of hierarchy, for institutional hierarchy is no more than explanatory regression, and that is the condition of human existence—but rather a social situation in which throughout all institutions negative feedback could be fed upward with impunity or at least with greater impunity than is now the circumstance for all of us.

This way of writing doesn’t do justice to Peckham’s abilities. He is able to fall into plain language, as in: “The ability to learn in school depends first of all on the ability to sit still in one place for considerable stretches of time and do what you are told to do.”

Professor Nisbet approaches us with his honors thick upon him: Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at Columbia, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, generously aided in his research by the Rockefeller Foundation—such claims to distinction are apt to stupefy the reader; the incense smoke is visible, fragrant, and slightly anesthetizing.

He tells us “the actual aim” of his book “is that of providing a straightforward history of the idea of progress, from the Greeks to our own day.” He knows there is something odd about this proposal, for the learned world is pretty much agreed that the idea of progress is not to be found in European thought much before the seventeenth century. This was the view of—to use Nisbet’s own list—Comte, Bagehot, Bury, Cornford, Inge, Collingwood, Hannah Arendt. To announce that he is going to maintain, against these and so many others, that the idea is a commonplace among the Greeks, in Saint Augustine, in the Middle Ages, is surely to announce that he intends to give us some hard argument and a close study, and a radical reinterpretation, of the texts and other historical evidences these others found persuasive. He doesn’t argue that there was unanimity, or even a majority view among the ancients or the men of the Middle Ages, for “old and recurrent as this conception is, it is by no means…universally held by intellectuals.”

(The choice of the word “intellectuals” suggests something worrying about Nisbet’s approach to historical questions. The concept of the intellectual is so tied to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that it seems curious to use it of most of those Nisbet has in mind. Was Plato or Aquinas or More or Bacon or Thomas Hobbes an intellectual? This seems like asking if the Apostle Paul was a clergyman. There are other oddities of the same kind. “The conflict Augustine posited between the two Cities is posited by Chamberlain between Teuton and Jew.” This qualifies for the “how’s that again?” caption sometimes used in The New Yorker. And what is one to make of the statement that a passage of Comte* [typically flaccid and empty] “could have been written by Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas, as well as by Leibniz?”)

There is in fact no serious examination of particular texts. Fragments are quoted that bring out the not very contentious claim that the ancients knew that there had been technical and other improvements over historical time and that with the taking of pains they could expect other improvements in time to come. No crucial difficulties are faced. A crux for the Nisbet thesis is Republic 545,6, but there is no discussion of it. Thucydides is quoted in such a way as to give the impression that he counts in favor of the Nisbet thesis. But the quotation is the famous “I shall be content if [my history] is judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it” (Crawley’s translation revised by R.W. Livingstone—the translation cited by Nisbet—his own?—makes the passage obscure). Not much comfort for the Nisbet thesis here. Nisbet doesn’t distinguish between three quite distinct things: first, a genuinely historical account of the conjectured past, as in Thucydides; then, talk about the past in which things such as the theft of fire by Prometheus and the opening of Pandora’s box took place (in illo tempore, as Eliade would say, not in a time continuous with ours); and finally, genetic explanations, such as Aristotle’s account of the origin of the polis. These tend to be run together and it is often not clear just what is being argued for.

I don’t find that Nisbet has any successes in argument—certainly not with Augustine or with Saint Paul—until he comes to Joachim of Flora in the Middle Ages. Here there is a case to be made, though the coming kingdom of the Spirit is closer to Paul and Augustine than it is to the state of man foreseen by Saint-Simon, Marx, or Herbert Spencer.

The method of the book is relaxed. It is full of long quotations, from the writings of the thinkers under discussion, and from the writings of modern commentators (I have counted seventy-six of the latter). These quotations are the meat in the sandwich, and they are enclosed by pieces of historical narrative, analytical and interpretative commentary, and obiter dicta. Contemporary or near contemporary writers are introduced in an unpleasantly fulsome tone: “What Arnaldo Momigliano has written…is helpful”; “What Charles N. Cochrane has written…is enlightening”; “As John Mundy has written in his impressive study…”; “E.L. Tuveson in his seminal Millennium and Utopia…”; “What J.H. Plumb has written in his perceptive The Death of the Past is instructive.” And so on. He may well use fair words to those many writers he has quarried in this way, for while he usually gives the title of the book and sometimes its date we are given no other bibliographical details and—more serious—no page references. This is a very unusual and reprehensible procedure. The book might have had some use for the undergraduate who wants to work up one or other of the themes Nisbet refers to. But since not one citation from Plato to Plumb carries any reference to the pages of the edition used, the book is useless.

There are other curiosities. At times I had a feeling I was reading an undergraduate essay. There are certain characteristic locutions against which I have been accustomed to write PADDING. There is a lot of such padding in Nisbet’s book.

Throughout the Renaissance, from Petrarch to Descartes (whose famous Cogito, Ergo Sum was subjectivism carried to almost revolutionary heights), there is this emphasis upon what lies within the human mind….

Man in the seventeenth century, in England at least becomes social minded.

[Bossuet] was the most famous preacher of his day in France, and his orations rank among the best of literary works in that age of consummate style.

Tom Paine, born in England, but every inch the American patriot….

Cosmopolitan though events in Germany forced [Heine] to become, thoroughly saturated by the culture of Paris in which he took residence in 1831 and helped invigorate intellectually, Heine remains nevertheless German—one of the greatest of German lyric poets.

But the lure of the Hegelian synthesis of political absolutism and inexorable progress did not by any means disappear amid the ashes of German political humiliation.

Nisbet thinks—who can blame him?—that the idea of progress is having a rough ride at the moment. But he believes there are signs of a religious revival in the West and that this will give the idea new vigor. Not only is there such a revival, there is also “a true efflorescence of formal theology. This efflorescence is manifested in books and articles of an intellectual quality not seen in such sudden abundance for many decades in the West.” I wish I had known about this. I wish I knew about this. Who are these formal theologians and where are they published?

The three books here noticed are symptoms of something strange and unexpected in our academic culture. We all know there is much pressure on the young to get themselves into print. There is no such compulsion on senior professors, though we are grateful when they give us something glorious or instructive. There is no glory and little instruction in these three books. It isn’t clear why serious publishers should be so complacent. We are told by them that Professor Smith “diagnoses our contemporary confusion”; that (in the words of Professor John H. Gagnon of Harvard) “sociologists, political theorists, literary critics and students of human culture in general will be intellectually rewarded in the process of reading” Explanation and Power; and that Professor Nisbet writes “with grace and wit and with an authority born of a lifetime of reflection and wide erudition lightly worn.”

Goodness, how sad! as the smart young women used to say in Waugh’s early novels.

This Issue

April 17, 1980