Eco’s “Name of the Rose”

Eco’s Name of the Rose (1980) is a dense, erudite work of historical fiction set in an early fourteenth century Benedictine monastery. Philosophical, theological, and geopolitical forces all manifest themselves locally in the abbey, resulting in a fascinating glimpse of the power of thinking upon the physical world.

On one level, the book is a murder mystery. The narrator, Adso, is a young monk who arrives at the abbey as a visitor alongside the wise and brilliant William of Baskerville, a Franciscan monk who is on a mission to arrange a meeting between Michael of Cesena, leader of the Franciscan order, which is in near-revolt against the Church hierarchy, and the Pope. Upon arrival, the two learn that a monk has died under mysterious circumstances, and the abbey’s abbot requests that William investigate.

On another level, the abbey is a microcosm of Western European philosophy at the time, and much of the tension and intrigue in the book is generated by differing beliefs and opinions that characters hold on issues of philosophy and theology. With the abbey being famous for its great library, the monks are a cosmopolitan bunch who, perhaps even more than other men of learning of their day, value learning and are, themselves, learned men. This love of learning becomes tinder to the fire of the monks’ not having unlimited access to the library’s holdings as well as to changing philosophical trends of the early fourteenth century.

In many ways, the book is an argument for uncertainty. William, a brilliant detective who is something of a forerunner of the empirical, deductive Sherlock Holmes, solves the murder mystery through the discovery of a pattern; however, it turns out that the pattern was not what he thought it was. Paradoxically, William leaves defeated, having solved the mystery.

Another element of uncertainty is that of the debate over the poverty of Jesus Christ. Much tension in the book comes from conflict between the Franciscan order (and dozens of its offshoots) and the Church hierarchy over the poverty of Christ. This is further complicated by the Franciscan position being championed by the Holy Roman Emperor, who, perhaps for geopolitical reasons, is on the side of the Franciscans. While fascinating in and of itself, the debate over poverty serves as a device to further to muddy the waters of certainty.

While Adso sees the monastery as a monolith of Christian belief and piety upon his arrival, he quickly learns that it is factionalized and in disarray theologically, with some of the monks holding to a conservative Bible-Church-Church Fathers view and others striving to incorporate Aristotle and other classical sources into their faith.

All of this blends together to create a truly postmodern book, which takes the orderly, homogenous view of a fourteenth century abbey and inserts confusion and life into it. The soaring stones and almost-transcendent architecture of the abbey undergo a change at the end of the book that represents the shifting sands of Middle Ages belief to that of the early Renaissance.

Rather than play reason and faith off against each other, Eco shows that reason and faith are uneasy allies against the true enemy: chaos.

On the Divergence of American Culture and Christianity

For more than three decades, American Christians have been living with the delusion that the United States has some special relationship with Christianity. All delusions end, whether from the death of the one(s) deluded, from the diffusion of the deluded idea among stronger ideological forces, or from certain experiences that are so contrary to the delusion that it becomes unsustainable.

The recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage should put this delusion to rest.

The United States is not a “Christian nation.” It never has been one. In many ways, the United States and other democracies are the enemies of religion. In “Democracy, Aristocracy, Monarchy — ‘The Closing of the American Mind,’” I wrote the following:

Democracies, unlike all other forms of government, are founded on reason. Classical liberalism, with its focus on the rights of the individual, limits on government, and laissez-faire economic policy, does not have its roots in tradition or religion. In order to function, reason-based democracies force citizens to subvert their individual cultures in order to establish a system based on rational contracts. In other words, a democracy cannot work in the long run if certain ethnic and religious groups are actively excluded from the levers of power and/or from economic activity. The Founders understood this, so they set up a system of government that forces individuals to downplay the demands of their individual cultures while still allowing them to nominally be a part of those individual cultures.

In other words, democracies are founded on reason; religions are not founded on reason. Democracies are designed to allow maximum citizen participation, which requires a trend toward equality, which demands that individuals downplay religion and its impact on their lives.

Like many of the world’s major religions, Christianity makes certain absolute “truth-claims.” God created the universe in some way. Jesus is the son of God. Jesus Christ was crucified and rose from the dead. The Jewish people have a special historical relationship with God. Some actions and decisions are right. Some actions and decisions are wrong.

Unfortunately for Christianity and other religions, democracies, in the long run, have no tolerance for religions that make “truth-claims” that run contrary to a system of rational contracts and a policy of inclusion and equality.

American Christianity has survived with American Democracy in the same way that dogs have survived with humans: by being sort of fun to have around and by being low-maintenance. In other words, Christians are pretty good citizens. Christ tells them to pay their taxes (Mark 12:13-17). The Ten Commandments are at least in the ballpark in terms of a democratic system of rational contracts. There aren’t any explicit commands to not serve in the armed forces.

Some American Christians have mistaken their country’s tolerance for its blessing by claiming that “America is a Christian nation” and that “America was founded on Christian morals.”

These delusions have now been exploded.

The United States is an inclusive democracy that is driven by the greatest wealth-creating economy of all human history, and it stands in complete opposition to Christianity and to the world’s other major religions.

Christianity is a religion that makes absolute claims upon believers, and all of those claims do not align with the world’s governments, including the government of the United States. Many Christians have strained to believe that Christianity and government can align. They do this out of hope and out of cowardice. You see, if Christianity and government align, then Christians do not have to stand outside of and in opposition to government. If Christianity and government align, then being a Christian is being a patriot. If Christianity and government align, then Christians get to partake of all of the benefits of their secular government while feeling that they are simultaneously fulfilling their spiritual duties and obligations.

From its founding, the United States has stood outside of, and in some ways, in opposition to Biblical Christianity. The recent Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage just highlights a truth that many Americans have been hiding from for decades: Christianity is not in alignment with the United States.

In “Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony,” Hauerwas and Willimon write about the impact that the Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity had upon Christianity’s relationship to government. They half-jokingly say that this relationship ended in the 1960s when movie theaters began showing movies on Sundays. Their point is that Christianity, since the time of Constantine, has tried to ally itself with secular governments. However, the blending of Christianity and government at best muddies Christianity and at worst corrupts it. Furthermore, governments are no longer playing nice with Christianity, yet Christians continue to cling to an old model of Christian/Culture/Country that no longer exists.

Willimon and Hauerwas argue that Christians must live as “Resident Aliens” in their own countries and in their own communities. This means that Biblical Christians should hold different beliefs and live a different way than other members of their community. Rather than trying to placate a culture that clearly (now more clearly than ever) will grant them no quarter, Christians should stand by what the Bible says and let the chips fall where they may.

The end result of this will be Christian communities that look very different from their surroundings. This is in opposition to the strategy of the past six decades, where Christian communities work to blend in even more with the larger culture, the result of which has been a corruption of churches, a straying away from Biblical teaching, and a rapid decline in church membership.

These trends will only accelerate unless Christians, churches, and denominations realize that the Bible is the only foundation that can withstand these cultural forces. Making real-world decisions based on the Bible will look strange and will be unpopular with the larger culture. However, there are no other options. Churches and denominations are dying in the West. It’s a foregone conclusion that the larger culture war has been lost, and it was perhaps lost from the time of Constantine.

The way forward is a rededication to the Bible and to living our lives in accordance with its precepts.

Joshua 1:8 — This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth, but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success.

American Christians, American churches, and American denominations have let the Bible become an anachronism. It’s a thing that is winked and nodded about. As a result, American Christianity is being made irrelevant. Just like the Israelites of the Old Testament, straying from God’s precepts has brought disaster. However, returning to God’s precepts can bring restoration.

Just to be clear, I do not claim that the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision is a result of Christians straying from the Bible. As I have been saying throughout this post, government stands in opposition to religion. In a democracy, such a court decision is logical and rational. What I am saying is that straying from the Bible has brought confusion to Christians and a weakening of churches and of the larger Christian community. Clinging to governments and expecting them to be “Christian” is foolish and is accelerating Christianity’s decline in the West.

I believe that the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriages will be a wake-up call to Christians that the United States is not the ally of Christianity.

In conclusion, I claim that Christians should return to the Bible, pour into their local Christian communities, and live lives that stand in opposition to prevailing cultural forces.

Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions”

A favorite quote of mine by H.L. Mencken goes like this: “For every subtle and complicated question, there is a perfectly simple and straightforward answer, which is wrong.”

Of all the subtle and complicated questions to which Mencken’s quote could apply, perhaps none is so fitting as this: What is science?

We say the word all of the time. Most of us think it is a good thing. And yet, we have no idea what it actually is. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions wrestles with this question and uses case studies from the history of science to support his conclusion: paradigms, not facts, define science.

The “perfectly simple and straightforward answer” to the question (What is science?) could be any of the following:

  • Science is a search for truth.
  • Science is the dispassionate application of the scientific method to the physical world.
  • Science is a gradual accumulation of learning that incrementally builds upon itself.

Of course, there are more answers we could put forth, but these three account for the vast majority of perfectly simply and straightforward answers, all of which are wrong.

Kuhn would state those three propositions as their opposites:

  1. Science is not a search for truth.
  2. Science is not the dispassionate application of the scientific method to the physical world.
  3. Science is not a gradual accumulation of learning that incrementally builds upon itself.

Thomas Kuhn, who was a professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (for those who need an argument from authority) and who studied the history of science, argues in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that paradigms define science, not facts.

About paradigms, Kuhn writes, “These I take to be universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners.”

So paradigms define problems and solutions. Paradigms determine what is an acceptable question to ask. Questions that do not align with a paradigm are considered to be non-scientific. For example, turning lead into gold is considered to be alchemy, a pseudo-science. In earlier times, the most eminent scientists, including Isaac Newton, very seriously pursued this goal. At that time, chemistry’s prevailing paradigm allowed that such studies were appropriate. Today, the goal of turning lead into gold is not allowed in the scientific community because the prevailing paradigm does not allow it.

Another example of a paradigm (and also a paradigm shift) is the Earth-centered view of the solar system:

In early times, humans notice the movements of stars and planets. They assume that the Earth is the center of these revolving celestial bodies. Astronomers/astrologers/scientists continue to observe the heavens and to work their explanations of celestial movements into the paradigm of an Earth-centered solar system. This works pretty well. They are able to make somewhat accurate predictions about the movements of the stars and planets. Unfortunately, there’s one small problem: the Earth isn’t the center of the solar system.

These early scientists find more accurate ways to “measure” celestial movement. They find more discrepancies between what their paradigm says should happen and what actually does happen. Some scientists begin to question whether the paradigm is accurate. They are ignored by the rest of the scientific community. More discrepancies emerge. More scientists defect. A scientific crisis emerges surrounding the old paradigm and the emerging paradigm. The heliocentric paradigm emerges and is eventually accepted by the scientific community at large.

After the acceptance of the heliocentric paradigm, scientists go back to what Kuhn calls “normal science,” which is further refining details of an existing paradigm. “Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like,” Kuhn writes.

It’s important here to note that scientists are not operating with a blank slate. They are operating within paradigms, which are, by definition, restrictive.

Think back to the famous Earth-centered versus heliocentric paradigm clash. For early scientists to do work, they had to assume that they knew that the Earth was the center of the solar system. They weren’t doing experiments to see if the moon was the center, or if Jupiter was the center. After all, had they done so, perhaps they would have tried to figure things from a heliocentric perspective. This did not happen until the Earth-centered paradigm broke down.

So there are two important points here:

  1. Normal science seeks to reaffirm existing paradigms.
  2. Normal science ends up tearing down existing paradigms.

Incidentally, we can pause here to recall our earlier claims. First, science is not a search for truth; science is a search to reaffirm entrenched worldviews (paradigms). Second, science is not the dispassionate application of the scientific method to the physical world; science is the passionate search for further refinements to an existing paradigm. Third, science is not a gradual accumulation of learning that incrementally builds upon itself; rather than accumulate knowledge through increments, scientific revolutions define scientific “advancement.”

The ironic thing about normal science, which seeks to reaffirm and further refine existing paradigms, is that it ends up bringing existing paradigms to a state of crisis, which allows a competing paradigm to assert itself. This is a result of the feedback loop that emerges between an established paradigm and normal science.

Paradigms restrict what is accepted as scientific (remember alchemy?). Since the scope of studies is restricted due to the paradigm, researchers focus their time, energy, and funding on a relatively narrow band of problems. These problems are all defined by the paradigm; in other words, the problems only make sense through the paradigm and are only expected to have answers due to the paradigm. Normal science seeks and finds answers to many of these problems; however, some stubborn problems remain. Perhaps in the course of the research into these problems, scientists find a few anomalies: things that do not make sense in the scope of the paradigm. Due to the inertia of the scientific community, these anomalies tend to be ignored until enough of them emerge to create a crisis in the scientific community over the paradigm, and a paradigm shift is underway.

In this way, the continued progress of normal science, seeking to reaffirm an existing paradigm, unearths anomalies. Some of these anomalies end up being explained within the context of the prevailing paradigm; however, others do not. Furthermore, paradigms are not necessarily accurate; they just need to be more accurate than other paradigms.

Going back to our earlier example, the Earth-centered view of the solar system worked very well for a very long time. Men could sail ships around the oceans by the stars. Scientists could make some predictions based on the movements of stars and planets. It was not accurate, but it was good enough. Once it became not good enough, the anomalies that had built up over the years were too much, and the paradigm was forced to shift.

So we can sum this up as follows:

  1. Paradigms define the way that scientists see the world.
  2. Paradigms are not necessarily accurate.
  3. Normal Science is the bulk of work that scientists do. Normal science seeks to reaffirm established paradigms, regardless of the accuracy of such paradigms.
  4. Normal Science discovers anomalies that do not match with the established paradigm.
  5. These anomalies are ignored until they cannot be ignored.
  6. Anomalies can cause a crisis by bringing the prevailing paradigm into question.
  7. New paradigms emerge in the crisis that seek to more accurately represent physical phenomena.
  8. A paradigm shift occurs when a new paradigm is accepted, which gives scientists a new way of seeing the world.

Kuhn uses many more examples of paradigm shifts in his book; however, I have focused on the Earth-centered versus heliocentric paradigms because they are the easiest for lay people to understand.

Paul Graham’s “How to Do Philosophy”

Paul Graham’s Sept. 2007 essay “How to Do Philosophy” is a critique of philosophy as it has been studied since the time of Socrates and a call to action in regard to how philosophy can be better practiced today. Below, I will outline Graham’s essay before challenging his premises and conclusion.

Graham was a philosophy major in college. However, he took many computer science classes before going on to achieve riches and fame as a programmer and founder. Rather than look back on his philosophy undergraduate work as an important step on his road to success, however, he claims that it was a waste of time.

As a high school student, Graham decided to be a philosophy major: “I had several motives, some more honorable than others. One of the less honorable was to shock people. College was regarded as job training where I grew up, so studying philosophy seemed an impressively impractical thing to do.”

Graham’s philosophical training included formal logic, presumably an introduction to the mind-body problem, at least one class where he read Berkeley’s Principles of Human Knowledge, and an introduction to Wittgenstein. I am sure that he studied more topics within philosophy, but those are the few that are mentioned in his essay.

He comes to believe, similar to Wittgenstein, that “outside of math there’s a limit to how far you can push words […].” For example, he mentions his learning about the construct “I” and writes, “I would say that this has been, unfortunately for philosophy, the central fact of philosophy. Most philosophical debates are not merely afflicted by but driven by confusions over words.” He goes on to say that Wittgenstein is given credit for this; however, countless others have discovered the same truth, and, unlike Wittgenstein, voted with their feet (by not studying philosophy) rather than engage with philosophy, which Graham regards as “an example of reason gone wrong.”

Graham spends much of the article thereafter discussing Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in an attempt to show that philosophy, almost from the beginning, was headed down a rabbit trail. Graham writes, “In particular, they [ancient philosophers] don’t seem to have fully grasped what I earlier called the central fact of philosophy: that words break if you push them too far.” Graham argues that abstract thinking was relatively new in Ancient Greece and that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were playing with aspects of the mind that they did not truly understand. The result of their naivety is philosophy, one big misunderstanding about the role and function of language in relation to the real world.

“The proof of how useless some of their answers turned out to be is how little effect they have,” Graham writes. “No one after reading Aristotle’s Metaphysics does anything different as a result.”

Graham then focuses on Aristotle and the distinction in the Metaphysics between practical and impractical knowledge. Graham argues that philosophy prizes impractical knowledge for no good reason, and, as a result, “ends up getting lost in a seas of words.” Furthermore, he argues, philosophers were stuck for centuries thereafter, viewing Aristotle’s faulty reasoning as a model to be emulated.

At this point, Graham wrestles with the fact that “inexperienced but intellectually ambitious students” still find philosophy worth studying. He argues that philosophy, upon first encounter, has the appearance of being difficult and meaningful. In the end, it ends up being only difficult. As such, there is a market for people who can write difficult things that are not meaningful. These people are philosophers. Their customers are “inexperienced but intellectually ambitious students” who, once they become more experienced, drift off to study other things.

Graham concludes with a proposal: practice “useful” philosophy. Since, he claims, philosophy’s goal is to “discover the most general truths,” those who practice philosophy should attempt to discover the most general useful truths. The test of whether these truths are useful is if they cause readers to do anything differently afterward.

Finally, he writes that the field of philosophy is still young because “for most of that time [the past 2,500 years] the leading practitioners weren’t doing much more than writing commentaries on Plato and Aristotle while watching over their shoulders for the next invading army. […] Philosophy is as young now as math was in 1500. There is a lot more to discover.”

While there are numerous aspects of Graham’s article to which I would like to respond (like his implication that just because he has trouble understanding Berkeley, Berkeley “is probably not worth trying to understand”), I will try to limit myself to his central deductive argument which unfolds as follows:

  • Premise 1: Words are not precise enough to communicate reality, yet philosophers attempt to do just that, with confusion and a “sea of words” being the end result. This is Wittgenstein.
  • Premise 2: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle believed that impractical knowledge is superior to practical knowledge.
  • Premise 3: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were wrong.
  • Premise 4: In the words of Alfred North Whitehead, “The safest general characterization of the philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
  • Conclusion: Philosophy is a field of study that attempts to use the wrong tools (words) to discuss things that are impractical, and the field has been engaged in this behavior for more than 2500 years.

Graham writes, “Words seem to work, just as Newtonian physics seems to. But you can always make them break if you push them far enough.” The same is true of blog posts, so I am going to try to be fair to Graham’s post by not hammering on trivial points; rather, I am going to attack the four premises above as best I can.

  • Premise 1: Words are not precise enough to communicate reality, yet philosophers attempt to do just that, with confusion and a “sea of words” being the end result. This is Wittgenstein.

Even though I was a philosophy minor in college, and even though I have more than a Wikipedia-based understanding of Wittgenstein, I do not feel that I have the philosophical chops to engage with him (Wittgenstein) directly. However, I will claim that the Later Wittgenstein’s view of language is that it is context-specific. Words do not exist independently of their context. Therefore, Wittgenstein would claim (I think) that it is impossible to discuss objective reality with words because objective reality exists outside of specific contexts.

Even so, I disagree with Wittgenstein (!). Adopting this type of linguistic nihilism is about as far removed from reality as some of the philosophical writing that Graham critiques. Because reality might be difficult to communicate with precision via words does not mean that precision cannot be communicated via words. A language’s having a tendency to be “blurry” and to lack precision does not mean that it always does. Graham is correct is his observation that much of philosophy is an analysis of exactly what is being said with certain terms, such as “God.” I see nothing wrong with this. Math does not do this because math isn’t trying to communicate the same sort of truths. Besides, humans don’t see reality this way. A being that only communicates with math is a computer, and, try as we might, we just can’t create a working Artificial Intelligence. Why? Because an Artificial Intelligence can only think with math, meaning that it cannot “think” at all.

Finally, even if the bulk of philosophical writing is drivel due to a lack of clarity, that does not mean that all of it is. If the bulk of computer programs are garbage, that doesn’t mean that all of them are. Philosophers are like space probes that have been launched haphazardly. Some crash into the sun. Some travel through the abyss of space with nothing interesting to report. Some fall into the orbit of black holes or stars. Others might stumble across signs of extraterrestrial life. Even if most of them have nothing but garbage to report, does that mean that it is not worth it for the information that a few might find?

  • Premise 2: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle believed that impractical knowledge is superior to practical knowledge.

I think the words “impractical” and “practical” are being misused here. See Premise 1 (tempting to insert an emoticon here)! Think of the difference between scientific and technical knowledge. Scientific knowledge, such as that about motion and force, is independent of the context of the objects/things that are in motion. Physics applies to planets just as it does to plants. Technical knowledge, on the other hand, is context-dependent. The skills needed to create something do not translate as easily between different contexts. What is being said here is that the former is superior to the latter. Knowledge that is context-independent is superior to that which is context-dependent.

  • Premise 3: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were wrong.

Graham is trying to argue here that studying “practical” and “useful” things is what people should do, even philosophers. Who is to say what is practical and useful? Science tends to be considered impractical and useless until it shows itself to be practical and useful. Look at how scientists are portrayed in Part III of Gulliver’s Travels, when Gulliver visits Laputa. Much of it is a critique of empiricism and the foolishness that results. Many people consider the search for extraterrestrial life and NASA to be wastes of time and money. I don’t. Even if they turn out to yield nothing of substance, at least we will know. The same holds for philosophical inquiry.

  • Premise 4: In the words of Alfred North Whitehead, “The safest general characterization of the philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

This premise is refuted/made unimportant because of my refutation of the earlier premises. In other words, if Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were “right,” then it is a good thing that philosophy is a footnote to their work.

In conclusion, Graham’s essay is an attack on philosophy that isn’t even a glancing blow. Once the central argument is laid out, it becomes clear that all he is saying is that Wittgenstein is correct and that philosophy isn’t practical. Neither point is new, and neither is clearly correct.

I wish more real philosophers would respond to critiques of this sort, but, unlike Graham, I believe that real philosophers are too busy exploring the limits of human thought and reality. In other words, they don’t have the time or inclination to respond to people with only a passing understanding of their field. It would be a bit like a top physicist pausing to respond to someone with a minor in mathematics.

I really enjoy Graham’s writing. I have read most of his essays at his website. Hackers and Painters is on my reading list. Nonetheless, he’s way out of his depth with “How to Do Philosophy.”

Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order”

Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order is a mid-1990s rebuttal to the post-Cold War theory that the fall of the Soviet Union meant the emergence of a unipolar world. Ironically, the cover of my copy on Huntington’s book has a blurb from Francis Fukuyama, the man most known for being wrong about this topic with his “End of History” theory.

In other words, in the heady days after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many people felt that liberal democracy, which had been held at bay by Soviet communism, would soon sweep what parts of the world it had not already swept. After all, the Cold War was a demonstration of there only being two ideologies: communism and liberal democracy. Logically, people like Fukuyama thought, the fall of Soviet communism meant the ultimate victory of liberal democracy and of the West.

Huntington wrote to dispel this line of thinking, and his thesis has shown itself to be true over the ensuing two decades. His thesis runs along the following lines:

  1. Modern (post-Cold War) “global politics is both multipolar and multicivilizational; modernization is distinct from Westernization and is producing neither a universal civilization in any meaningful sense nor the Westernization of non-Western societies.”
  2. The West, while still powerful, is in decline in relative terms compared to other civilizations.
  3. Civilizations, not nations, are the bedrock of the new world order.
  4. The West’s belief that it has a moral obligation to impose its view of human rights and political order on the rest of the world “increasingly bring it into conflict with other civilizations.”
  5. For the West to revitalize itself and slow further decline, it must recommit to its core values and principles: Christianity, pluralism, individualism, rule of law, human rights, and cultural freedom.

Fukuyama and friends can be forgiven for engaging in a false dilemma. After all, there were two superpowers for much of the twentieth century. People could not understand what the world would look like after a Cold War that did not end in nuclear holocaust. Huntington, on the other hand, saw that the Cold War masked underlying demographic and cultural forces that revealed themselves once the dueling superpowers narrative gave way to the declining superpower one:

The most important groupings of states are no longer the three blocs of the Cold War but rather the world’s seven or eight major civilizations. […] In this new world, local politics is the politics of ethnicity; global politics is the politics of civilizations. The rivalry of the superpowers is replaced by the clash of civilizations.

Huntington argues that the modern world is a collection of civilizations, some with “core states” that define or embody the characteristics of their respective civilizations. These civilizations are as follows with core states in parentheses: Western (United States, France, Germany), Latin American (no core state), African (South Africa), Islamic (no core state), Sinic (China), Hindu (India), Orthodox (Russia), Buddhist (no core state), and Japanese (Japan).

Conflicts occur on the borders of these civilizations, rarely between core states of the civilizations. For example, Huntington makes the following prediction based on this model, and remember, this was written in the mid-1990s:

A civilizational approach [to conflict between Russia and Ukraine] […] emphasizes the close cultural, personal, and historical links between Russia and Ukraine and the intermingling of Russians and Ukrainians in both countries, and focuses instead on the civilizational fault line that divides Orthodox eastern Ukraine from Uniate western Ukraine […]. While a statist approach highlights the possibility of a Russian-Ukrainian war, a civilizational approach minimizes that and instead highlights the possibility of Ukraine splitting in half, a separation which cultural factors would lead one to predict might be more violent than that of Czechoslovakia but far less bloody that that of Yugoslavia.

In other words, Huntington’s civilizational model has perfectly predicted the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Rather than a nation-versus-nation fight between Russia and Ukraine, and rather than a core-state-versus-core-state fight between Russia and the United States over Ukraine, there seems to be a classic fault-line war being waged between groups appealing to Orthodox and Western civilization. Huntington writes, “fault line wars, in contrast [to other types of communal wars], are by definition between groups which are part of larger cultural entities.”

Huntington spends the vast majority of the book using both anecdotal and empirical evidence to make the case for his thesis; however, for some (younger folks?), a multi-civilizational, multi-polar view of the world is not so much of a paradigm shift today as it was in the mid-1990s. For people who spent decades living during the Cold War, it is understandable to struggle with the reality of declining Western power and rising regional, civilizational-centric power centered on core states.

Huntington’s suggestion for the world going forward is for core states to stay out of each other’s business when it comes to their respective civilizations, something which is difficult for the West to accept. In other words, if China is using force to keep Singapore or another “Sinic” nation in line, the West should stay out of it. Why? Because it’s not worth it for the West to get dragged into prolonged, destructive wars over ideology, even if the ideology is admirable (equality, democracy, freedom). On the other hand, members of civilizations should stick together when confronted by other civilizations.

Another of Huntington’s suggestions is for civilizations to reaffirm their ties to their “kin countries,” which are almost exclusively defined by religion. For example, Western Europe and the United States should recommit and redouble efforts to strengthen cultural, economic, and military ties to one another.

For the West in particular, Huntington recommends the following in regard to its relative decline in power: “[…] the prudent course for the West is not to attempt to stop the shift in power but to learn to navigate the shallows, endure the miseries, moderate its ventures, and safeguard its culture.”

That seems a bit sad and a bit contrary to the Western (American?) spirit. However, what is the alternative? Political science is supposed to be about reality, not about wishes or politics. Huntington’s books is famous for a reason: it paints a realistic, non-alarmist picture of our times that can lead to sensible governance and politics to safeguard Civilization as a whole.