Thursday, May 21, 2015

Is the global financial system at risk of collapsing?

Many Western countries may well be facing a relatively bleak economic future, but I doubt that we are headed for anything like a global financial cataclysm.

Though I am no expert, it is important for me to have a considered view on these sorts of matters both for general and more practical reasons: general, because I'm curious about how our economic and political realities evolve; and practical, because of the impact impending events may have on personal investments etc..

I have been devoting serious attention to investing for almost twenty years now, and during this time my fortunes have fluctuated more or less in sync with global equity markets. My intention at the moment is to shift to a more conservative strategy (if only I could figure out what a conservative strategy might be in the current situation, when bond yields are so eerily low...).

Precious metals? I did hold some gold bullion years ago but don't currently own any. So-called gold or silver 'stackers' are often very naive and uncritical in certain respects but at least they perceive that something is seriously wrong with the current financial and monetary system and are seeking to take control of their own destinies.

In fact, some fairly mainstream commentators agree with their logic to a point. James Rickards thinks one should have about 10% of one's savings or investments allocated to physical gold; and Marc Faber and Jim Rogers both maintain a considerable proportion of their wealth in physical gold, held in an Asian country, not the US. (It is commonly thought that, in the event of a sovereign debt or currency crisis, Western governments would force private holders of gold to sell up at a low price, as happened in 1930s America.)

But moving and storing the stuff is always a bother (and an expense), and bullion pays no interest or dividend. More importantly, I don't see a collapse of the global financial system as being a necessary consequence of a loss of confidence in the US dollar. Why would a new system not evolve based (perhaps) around IMF 'special drawing rights' and the Chinese and certain other currencies not associated with over-indebted sovereigns? The Chinese are rapidly moving towards full convertibility for their currency and are already having considerable success in promoting use of the yuan in international trade. (It will almost certainly be incorporated into the IMF's SDR formula before the end of the year.)

More generally, what we are witnessing is a major wealth shift away from the U.S. and most of Europe and towards Asia (and specifically China).

Sovereign debt is a crucial issue here. Sure, there have been times in the post-WWII period when previously-prosperous countries have suffered from sovereign debt crises -- and have recovered. But, in the current situation, with sovereign debt at record levels in most of the major Western economies (as well as Japan) we have arguably passed a point of no return. Only extremely low interest rates are allowing this situation to persist without major financial, economic and political upheavals.

The fact is that major economies such as the U.S., Japan, the U.K., Italy and France are in decline and, given the state of their public finances coupled with low productivity growth, probably in terminal decline.

We are seeing a US-centred world financial system slowly being replaced by a multilateral system which -- increasingly -- will reflect the significance of the Chinese economy and the Chinese currency.

The Obama adminstration is hastening this process not only by sanctioning reckless monetary policies and virtually ignoring the looming crisis of US sovereign debt and entitlements but also by a series of geo-political and diplomatic blunders. One of the most cack-handed and significant of these was its recent -- and largely failed -- attempt to dissuade its major Western allies from joining (as founding members) the China-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

'Conservative' is not a dirty word

A couple of commenters at Scientia Salon recently made some gratuitous remarks about conservatives and conservatism. Their comments prompted this from me [part of a longer comment]:

"... You can define 'conservative' to mean irrational, committed to fundamentalist religion, selfishly seeking to hold on to one's power or privilege, etc. if you like; but it needn't be understood like this. It can be seen as a neutral descriptive term. You could just as easily list a set of positive conservative characteristics as negative ones if you wanted to. (E.g. being appropriately cautious, being aware of the dangers of unintended consequences in social and political matters, seeing culture and society in organic rather than mechanistic or abstract terms, etc.) ..."

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

On the concept of the Jewish people

Daniel Kaufman wrote a piece last month on his new blog Apophenia about religion without spirituality. He talks specifically about his particular liberal take on Jewish religion and culture and relates the notion of Jewish identity not so much to the religious side of Judaism in the sense of beliefs but rather to its rituals and conventions and to Jewish nationhood.

In the comment thread I raised a couple of questions, one about his notion of the Jewish people.

"I can see," I wrote, "that one can identify with the experience of more recent generations but doesn't it get a bit problematic when one imagines that one's "nationhood" traces back thousands of years in more than a mythical way?

"And then there is the problem of deciding who exactly is a member of the Jewish people and who is not. I, like many with British and European ancestry, have Jewish ancestors. There seems to be an arbitrariness about the Jew/non-Jew distinction if it is seen as clear-cut [unless of course one is using the word in a purely religious sense to designate individuals who identify with particular congregations or forms of Judaism]; and an unsatisfactoriness about seeing people as being more or less Jewish (especially in genetic terms)...

"... There are some perceptions of Jewish identity which appear to me on the one hand to give too much credence to the Biblical accounts as history and on the other to incorporate unrealistically strong claims to genetic continuity over the entire span of the tradition. (Or traditions? I tend to see Jewish culture as extremely variegated, more as a kind of patchwork, interacting with and contributing to various other traditions and cultures.)"

Daniel Kaufman's approach draws more on cultural and psychological rather than on strictly historical factors. But, as I suggested in the discussion, the (degree of) historical grounding of the Biblical narratives upon which Jewish culture and religion are built matters; it makes a difference.

He replied first by conceding that the concept of the Jewish people is not amenable to a clear, analytical definition, referring to it as a Wittgensteinian "family-resemblance" type of concept. Would this not, however, render the concept insufficiently determinate, insufficiently robust to do the work he wants it to do?

In a final comment, he more directly addresses my historical concerns, acknowledging that tracing the Jewish people back beyond the Roman era is rather problematic because of the lack of independent sources. He identifies with the tradition of Rabbinic Judaism which, deriving from the Pharisaic tradition, developed in the diaspora after the Roman era.

There are a couple of issues which I would like to pick up on, so here are a few further thoughts...

Firstly, as I suggested above, I see Judaism and Jewish culture more generally as being far from homogeneous. It changed over time (as all cultures do) and at any given time has been more or less variegated. At the time of Jesus, for example, Judaism was clearly comprised of a variety of (competing) schools of thought and practice. In various ways, the Gospels, Acts, the Book of Revelation and Paul's letters provide compelling evidence for these but there is (even stronger) evidence also from many other sources, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls (which were the product of an extremist or radical community which rejected the religious and political status quo and lived a monastic type of life while awaiting an imagined war between the forces of light and the forces of darkness in which they would fight on the side of the angels of light). The figures of John the Baptist and Jesus may be seen to inhabit a similar radical space, though they rejected communal living.

Of course, the Pharisees figure prominently in the New Testament narrative as do the Sadducees (who apparently believed in the traditional Jewish concept of Sheol, rejecting the notion of the resurrection of the dead and indeed any notion of judgement after death). And Paul (or Saul of Tarsus) seems to have been a practitioner of a heterodox and mystical form of Judaism.

Another relevant issue is that, unlike today's versions, Judaism was a proselytizing religion during Roman times. In fact it was the energetic and successful missionary activities of the Jews which apparently precipitated an expulsion in 139 BC and another in AD 19. References to the Jewish expulsion from Rome in the Acts of the Apostles, Suetonius, Cassius Dio and (much later) Paulus Orosius all apparently refer to an edict of the Emperor Claudius (who ruled from 41-54) however.

Given, then, that many Roman Jews were converts and, given that the post-Roman diaspora communities were probably also associated with conversion activity (and widespread intermarriage with local people), it is no surprise that there is much confusion and controversy surrounding the question of Jewish ethnicity, much of it currently focussed on DNA studies and their interpretation.* No doubt a scientific consensus will form over time as more studies are done, but it is already clear that Jewish ethnicity is not and never will be amenable to a straightforward genetic test.

The central focus of Daniel Kaufman's post (which I did not directly address in my comments) relates to the broader question of whether one can have a (viable) religion without spirituality. This issue came up the other day in another exchange between him and me in the comment thread of a subsequent post, and I may have more to say about it in the future.

For now, let me just make two points.

The first relates to semantics. There is a question about whether the attenuated form of Judaism he describes remains a religion in any meaningful sense. Certainly he is employing a broader view of the religious and the sacred than the conventional one. And this is fine, but for the fact that we normally like to retain some kind of distinction between 'actual' religions and forms of life (like nationalism) which may well involve expressions of the same sorts of instincts as those traditionally associated with religion but which are not religions.

The second point relates to the question of whether or not such attenuated forms of religion are capable of sustaining themselves beyond a couple of generations. (My guess is that they are not.)


* I have touched on these issues before. For example, this post discusses (and links to) research which examines Ashkenazi lineages via mitochondrial DNA analysis. The findings were that the female lines derive predominantly from European rather than Levantine populations. (The four major and most of the minor Ashkenazi maternal lineages form clusters within descent lines that were established in Europe between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago.)

Y DNA studies, on the other hand, have apparently shown that Ashkenazi Jews (here I am citing Wikipedia) "share more common paternal lineages with other Jewish and Middle Eastern groups than with non-Jewish populations in areas where Jews lived in Eastern Europe, Germany and the French Rhine Valley."

Mitochondrial and Y DNA are good for discovering deep ancestry but don't indicate the actual degree of relatedness between individuals: for this autosomal DNA or whole-genome analysis is required. Studies of the latter kind paint a very complex picture of regional variation with varying levels of commonality with host populations leading to increased scope for competing claims and interpretations. One surprising early result was that there appear to be very strong genetic links between Sephardi and Ashkenazi populations and non-Jewish Southern Europeans, especially modern Italians.

This is how the authors of the cited mtDNA study sum up the research into Ashkenazi origins and place their own work in relation to it:

"We are [...] faced with several competing models for Ashkenazi origins: a Levantine ancestry; a Mediterranean/west European ancestry; a North Caucasian ancestry; or, of course, a blend of these. This seems an ideal problem to tackle with genetic analysis, but after decades of intensive study a definitive answer remains elusive. Although we might imagine that such an apparently straightforward admixture question might be readily addressed using genome-wide autosomal markers, recent studies have proposed contradictory conclusions. Several suggest a primarily Levantine ancestry with south/west European admixture, but another concludes that the ancestry is largely Caucasian, implying a major source from converts in the Khazar kingdom. An important reason for disagreement is that the Ashkenazim have undergone severe founder effects during their history, drastically altering the frequencies of genetic markers and distorting the relationship with their ancestral populations.

"This problem can be resolved by reconstructing the relationships genealogically, rather than relying on allele frequencies, using the non-recombining marker systems: the paternally inherited male-specific part of the Y chromosome (MSY) and the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). This kind of analysis can be very powerful, because nesting of particular lineages within clusters from a particular geographical region allows us to pinpoint the source for those lineages, by applying the parsimony principle. This has indeed been attempted, with the MSY results interpreted plausibly to suggest an overwhelming majority of Near Eastern ancestry on the Ashkenazi male line of descent, albeit with much higher levels (more than 50%) of European (potentially east European) lineages in Ashkenazi Levites, suggesting a possible Khazar source in that particular case.

"The maternal line has also been studied, and indeed Ashkenazi mtDNAs are highly distinctive, but they have proved difficult to assign to a source population. Some progress has been made by targeting whole-mtDNA genomes or mitogenomes, which provide much higher genealogical (and therefore geographical) and chronological resolution than the control-region sequences used previously—although the far larger control-region database remains an invaluable guide to their geographic distribution. Using this approach, Behar identified four major founder clusters, three within haplogroup K—amounting to 32% of sampled Ashkenazi lineages—and one within haplogroup N1b, amounting to another 9%. These lineages are extremely infrequent across the Near East and Europe, making the identification of potential source populations very challenging. Nevertheless, they concluded that all four most likely arose in the Near East and were markers of a migration to Europe of people ancestral to the Ashkenazim only ~2,000 years ago. The remaining ~60% of mtDNA lineages in the Ashkenazim remained unassigned to any source, with the exception of the minor haplogroup U5 and V lineages (~6% in total), which implied European ancestry.

"Here we focus on both major and minor founders, with a much larger database from potential source populations..."

Their conclusion: "... Overall, we estimate that most (more than 80%) Ashkenazi mtDNAs were assimilated within Europe. Few derive from a Near Eastern source, and despite the recent revival of the ‘Khazar hypothesis’, virtually none are likely to have ancestry in the North Caucasus. Therefore, whereas on the male side there may have been a significant Near Eastern (and possibly east European/Caucasian) component in Ashkenazi ancestry, the maternal lineages mainly trace back to prehistoric Western Europe. These results emphasize the importance of recruitment of local women and conversion in the formation of Ashkenazi communities, and represent a significant step in the detailed reconstruction of Ashkenazi genealogical history."

Saturday, February 28, 2015

On Greece – and some broader issues

I haven't been posting lately, but I have been following very closely the Greek debt crisis whilst continuing to review my own ideas on economic and political issues. Needless to say, my sympathies are not with the the radical leftist coalition which has been in power in Greece for a little over a month now – and which has been indulging in absurd posturing and making reckless and unrealistic claims and promises and unnecessarily alienating their creditors (mainly other eurozone governments).* But nor am I endorsing the approach of the euro establishment whose actions have arguably exacerbated Greece's problems.

With respect to my own general views on social, political and economic questions, there hasn't been any dramatic change, though one always watches how well (or badly) one's (for want of a better phrase) ideological preferences match the unfolding realities.

One of my main preoccupations is to resist those metaphysicalizing tendencies which are as much – if not more – a feature of left-wing as of conservative thinking. In general I find views based on religion or traditional metaphysics – for example, notions of natural law and universal human rights – to be flawed and unconvincing and am very much scientifically-oriented in terms of my worldview. At the same time, I am strongly attracted to conservative and pragmatic approaches to many personal, social, cultural and political questions.

Something I have been trying to do for years now – and without much success, actually – is to identify thinkers with whom I can identify on a wide range of issues. The trouble is scientifically-oriented thinkers are usually leftists or at least left-leaning; whereas conservatives or classical liberals all too often maintain an explicit or tacit commitment to religious ideas.

Take the European neo-liberals I refer to in the current version of my 'Sketch of a Social Philosophy'. Most of the thinkers in this group, including the most prominent examples like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, arguably had religious or at least traditionally metaphysical convictions. Mises was not religious in the conventional sense but saw the major world religions as somehow reflecting some kind of underlying metaphysical or essential religious truth. Hayek, who had a Catholic background but was not a churchgoer, called himself an agnostic. There are very strong Kantian elements in his thinking, however, and, as with so many of his friends and colleagues (Karl Popper and Eric Voegelin come to mind), it seems clear that his moral and political commitments were driven by a sense that human beings have a capacity for freedom (and insight?) which somehow transcends the bounds of scientific and pragmatic reason. I value my personal autonomy and privacy as much as anybody, but I balk at transmuting this feeling – part cultural, part psychological trait – into some kind of metaphysical position or generalized belief in 'human freedom'.

Voegelin I have been looking at recently: interestingly conservative ideas but tied explicitly to a distinctly religious (though non-doctrinal) view of the world.

I have also been looking at some legal philosophy. Hans Kelsen's legal positivism is worth considering but I'm not entirely convinced by it. (Kelsen, by the way, was Voegelin's dissertation advisor.) At least Kelsen rejects the natural law tradition.

Another legal philosopher I have been looking at is Carl Schmitt (who in fact engaged in a long dialogue with Hans Kelsen). Schmitt also emphasized the parallels between religion and politics. His analysis of the weaknesses of liberal-democratic systems is insightful but his prescriptions could all too easily be used (as they were by the Nazis) to justify totally unacceptable practices along the lines of ethnic or ideological cleansing.

Schmidt's ideas are not focused particularly on 'race'. He saw the roots of the political in the friend/enemy distinction, in a sense of collective identity so strong that group members would be willing to defend the group's existence and autonomy by force of arms.

Schmidt's views reflect a very pessimistic view of human nature which, although obviously related to the notion of original sin, is not without a certain plausibility. In general terms it could be defended on secular and empirical grounds alone. And, though he bases the political in the notion of potentially lethal antagonisms, he doesn't glorify war or encourage violence in the way many radical thinkers do. (Georges Sorel, for example, saw certain forms of violence as intrinsically noble; and many Marxists, of course, actively encourage(d) violent revolution.)

In today's economically and politically volatile environment, respect for the basic social and political institutions is waning, even (especially?) amongst conservatives, so there is a special interest in truly radical thinkers (like Schmidt) who question the liberal foundations of modern Western democracy.

I personally see the law in very pragmatic terms and only respect it to the extent that it limits itself to providing basic and uncontroversial guidelines and protections and disincentives to harmful and antisocial activities. In my view the legal systems in most Western countries have been ideologically corrupted over recent decades and have, as a consequence, lost a large degree of their credibility.

But these are deep and complex issues and I am here merely noting a few half-developed thoughts and feelings.

* Ambrose Evans-Pritchard – currently in Athens – gives an excellent, historically-informed account of how things stand at the moment.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Some thoughts on language and culture

Late last year I raised the issue of accents in relation to language-learning. I was thinking about the way my French teachers had exaggerated the importance of getting the accent right (over fluency and effective communication). There was a element of snobisme in this. For example, there was a joke about one of my high school teachers (of Social Studies, not French, though he later taught in the Italian Department of my university). The cosmopolitan Mr. Lionel Lobstein was known to speak ten languages – all with the same accent. (Very funny it seemed at the time.*)

I liked the man, actually. He was charmingly awkward and wore strange, brightly-coloured woven ties (of which he clearly had a very large collection). He used to tell us about his Greek holidays which he seemed to spend sipping drinks and talking in shady, paved courtyards. The Greeks, he said, had their priorities right and valued conversation above practical household tasks and duties like mowing the lawn (or paying the bills?). There was a hint of sexist double standards in his attitudes, even a trace of misogyny, but one had the sense that he had been disappointed in love.

Getting back to the theme of language, however, we don't expect the French or other non-native English speakers to eliminate their native accents (and in fact tend to be rather disappointed if they do), so why should we try to eliminate ours?

But, of course, the goal of a 'perfect' accent was always, in classroom contexts at least, aspirational only. The actual goal was not so much to eliminate as merely to tone down or minimize the learner's inevitable (and unconscious) tendency to apply elements of the sound system of his or her native language to the language being learned.

In fact there is a lot to be said for general prescriptive standards with respect to accents and language generally (as well as for other aspects of social life) so long as they are sufficiently elastic to allow scope for a certain degree of individual variation and sensitive to wider currents of social and cultural change. Changing standards reflect a changing world.

Standards can be associated with perceived prestige and can change quite rapidly. Certainly, perceptions of the status and desirability of various British accents have changed dramatically in recent decades and the same probably applies to other languages.

But, while perceptions from within particular linguistic communities can change quickly, global perceptions shift more slowly and tend also to be associated with geopolitical and economic factors. A form of British English persisted as an international standard long after the power of the British Empire had faded. Cultural prestige, you could say, is a lagging indicator of a nation's geopolitical fortunes.

Given America's recent global dominance, it is hardly surprising that American English is currently riding high, the vast majority of learners aspiring to master American English and the accent known as General American – even if the United States is now seen in many quarters as a fading (and increasingly unloved) centre of power. And because so many non-native English speakers have in recent times learned English in school from an early age, typically using American-produced materials, their English is becoming more and more difficult to distinguish from that of Americans born and bred.

English may seem a bit like today's equivalent of Latin in medieval Europe, a universal language, but a better comparison might be with Koine Greek in the Mediterranean world circa 2000 years ago. Medieval Latin was primarily an ecclesiastical language and a language of scholarship and the law defining a pan-European cultural and scholarly elite, whereas English, while it has become the international language of science and scholarship, is perhaps even more significant (as Greek was in the Roman world) as a language of commerce and popular culture.**

Though not having to learn a second language to get on in the world can be interpreted as an advantage accruing to native English speakers, there may also be a downside for them, especially for speakers of the standard forms. Leaving aside questions of the various intrinsic and extrinsic values which are sometimes associated with bilingualism – and of course there is nothing stopping English speakers from learning another language – there is another issue which is worth noting. Namely, that native speakers of English generally, and American speakers of General American in particular, may be seen to have suffered a strange kind of cultural loss in that they no longer have 'ownership' of their own language.

They can never retreat into that familiar and intimate linguistic realm defined by common ancestry and shared culture and memories which a native language has traditionally provided.*** For them language and accent have, to a large extent, ceased to operate as a badge and guarantor of cultural identity.

Moreover, native speakers of the standard forms of English have effectively lost control of their language as it becomes the common property of – and will increasingly be shaped to meet the needs of – the many hundreds of millions of people from very different cultural backgrounds who have adopted it.

* Something similar, I later learned, was said of John von Neumann. But when one is a supreme mathematical genius the small matter of an entrenched Hungarian accent is beside the point (or even an asset perhaps).

** The enthusiasm for all things Greek in Roman times – it was fashionable to have a Greek slave to tutor your children, I understand – is another example of cultural prestige long outlasting the power and wealth of the originating nation.

*** A linguistic matrix of this kind has been a key feature of most human cultures – the bedrock, in fact – and an important driver of creativity. For example, vernaculars formed the basis of much modern European culture, and early literary works (in, for example, the Romance languages or English or German, or, later, the Slavic languages) were often seen as social and political statements, implicitly affirming the value not only of the particular language but also of its associated culture.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano, who has been awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize for literature, is one of the very few living writers who means anything to me on a personal level. I read a few of his novels after coming across Voyage de noces by chance about fifteen years ago and being impressed by its style and atmosphere and sense of place (but I remember thinking that it would not translate well into English).

A Reuters report quoted a comment Modiano made in a television interview three years ago: "After each novel, I have the impression that I have cleared it all away. But I know I'll come back over and over again to tiny details, little things that are part of what I am... In the end, we are all determined by the place and the time in which we were born."

Funnily enough, I have recently been trying to make a list of topics that particularly interest me, and one of them is not unrelated to Modiano's recurring preoccupations.

One item on the list runs as follows: The contingent (and unrepeatable) features of any individual's upbringing – which includes as a central element a unique and ever-changing cultural matrix – raises awkward questions about values. We like to think of our core values as being, if not objective or universal, then at least as having some permanent or abiding relevance. But do they?

I was thinking here of both aesthetic and moral values, by the way. Though certain very basic moral – and even aesthetic – ideas could be seen to have universal applicability, particular patterns of moral and aesthetic commitment (involving priorities and preferences) seem far more contingent on time and place and culture.

(My previous post also touches on some of these themes.)

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sentimental education

Perhaps it has got something to do with having a father who was considerably older than my mother – and who himself was regularly mistaken for someone of an even earlier generation than the one he in fact belonged to – but I have always felt more culturally connected to times previous to my own. I am drawn, for example, to the intellectual culture of the early-to-mid 20th century, and to the latter part of that period for popular culture.

As a young undergraduate, I always used to prefer the late-in-the-day tutorials scheduled for the benefit of part-time, 'mature aged' students. They came on their way home from work in the city, the men in suits, the women smartly dressed and smelling of perfume. They knew stuff I didn't know and had strong opinions about things I had never really thought or even heard about.

There was a woman in her late twenties perhaps whom I used to talk to a lot when I was in my second year. She seemed slightly old-fashioned, out of her time somehow. And it turned out that she had quite – unusual – ideas.

For she had something of an obsession with someone I had only vaguely heard of, someone who was obviously a hero for her and who represented an apparently lost but (in her eyes) glorious cause – the fascist leader, Oswald Mosley. But politics (or political history) was not something I had strong opinions about at the time, and I just took her views as one aspect of a slightly odd and intriguing personality.

Not only the student population but also the academic staff (in stark contrast to today's equivalents) reflected a variety of political and social views, from left to right to totally apolitical.

I took a course on W.B. Yeats which influenced me quite deeply. It was taught by a Hungarian who had written a dissertation at Cambridge on 18th-century English gardens and who was very much in sympathy with Yeats's fin de siècle aestheticism as well as his general political tendencies and social views.

As a young student, I was – like the typical student character in a 19th-century novel – almost drowning in Romanticism. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Emily Brontë, Gérard de Nerval, Baudelaire.

Two French novels I read around that time, Adolphe by Benjamin Constant and L'Education sentimentale by Gustave Flaubert, were each centred on a relationship between a younger man and an older woman: dark unpleasant books both of them, but strangely alluring. They and other Romantic texts coloured all my interactions and relationships (or non-relationships!) at the time.

Everything – especially everything female – was seen by me through a kind of literary lens which in retrospect I could have really done without. All that Romantic and pre-Raphaelite baggage made me quite as blind to immediate reality as (in a rather different way) the Mosleyite woman was.

In subsequent years I have come to reject just about everything associated with the Romantic movement. Except one thing, its one true – and overwhelmingly important – insight into the nature of reality: that, morally speaking, the natural world is value-free – there are no values in nature.*

The 18th-century philosophes saw themselves as science-driven and enlightened thinkers, but their deism perpetuated classical notions of a divinely guided universe. Ironically, it took the radical (and often self-consciously emotional) upheaval of the Romantic period to clear the way for a truly scientific and secular view of the world.

* Of course, I don't mean to deny that living beings have values and human beings have moral values, and that we constitute part of the natural world. But since the Romantic period it has been much harder to maintain the view that human values are somehow reflected in – or derive from – non-human realities, whether natural or supernatural. (This point – or one very like it – was made by Isaiah Berlin.)