The Torch

The Torch (Danish: is a Danish web-magazine devoted to cultural trends and social comment in a humanist worldview. Edited by Rune Engelbreth Larsen and Carsten Agger.



Peter Tudvad
SAK - An Unscholarly Biography of Kierkegaard

Rune Engelbreth Larsen
The Cartoon Crisis and the Danish Prime Minister

Jens-André P. Herbener
New Scholarly Translation of the Hebrew Bible

Rune Engelbreth Larsen
Matrix and the Metaphysical Film Revolution

Carsten Agger
Assault Against the Freedom of Speech

Totalitarian and Fascist Tendencies in Denmark

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Jens-André P. Herbener | THE TORCH

Cultural Relativism

Cultural evolutionism is not of a quite recent date. One of the fathers of the French Enlightenment and modern historiography Francois Voltaire initiated his voluminous work on world history in 1756 as follows: »I will examine the first steps by means of which man has moved from barbarity to civilization.«

In many ways this dictum was fatal. Thus the scientific view of history was no longer only descriptive, but also normative and evolutionist. In the wake influential philosophers as August Comte and Karl Marx succeeded, and increased by a prevalent misunderstanding of the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin the foundation of modern cultural evolutionism was created.

However, most people do not know this concept merely as a concept, but only as an imperative reality. In our conception of the past as well as the present we have a notion - incorporated in the very way we think of it - of a progress forward - that in the course of history we have moved towards a higher and higher degree of complexity in nature, but also towards something better, less barbaric, more civilized in the cultural field.

That this interpretation of history is still acclaimed among many scholars at the Humanities manifests itself in characteristic phrases such as defining (in the old Greece) the transition from the age of myth to the birth of rationalism as the Greek miracle, that a change from polytheism to monotheism necessarily has to be characterised as a progress, that the world-renunciation of the primeval Christianity implicates a humanization of the Mosaic law, that the Reformation made the Catholic Church more popular etc. etc.

If not wanting to acknowledge this way of thinking status of a metaphysical teleology in history, implying an inevitable development towards our state of affairs as the goal, some have suggested the concept irreversibility instead. The line of thought is for instance that once you have got used to democracy you cannot go back to monarchy without a strong feeling of compulsion. Once you have experienced the world, subjugated to the command of reason, and once you have become a self-reflective subject, you cannot regress to a religious/mythical view of the world. In the same way a transition from a modern community founded on the rule of law towards the auto-legislation of previous cultures can only be perceived as a step backwards.

The whole point in this apparently plausible concept of irreversibility is that behind our modern view of the world, our ethics, our faith, our democracy all bridges are burnt - an irreversible progress of consciousness has occurred, whether we like it or not. It would be obvious to add: Quod erat demonstrandum: We are the wisest people that have ever lived on this planet. »By means of the inner logic of our rational arguments«, as a teacher at the University of Aarhus expressed it at a seminar (without a single objection from the other scholars), we are bound to conclude this.

It goes without saying that this concept in reality represents the cultural evolutionism of the previous century - merely in a new and treacherous disguise. An evolutionism that ideologically justified the western exploitation of their colonies all over the world as well as the mass extermination of the Jews during World War 2.

The danger in this connection is not only that Fascist trends are rampant among various senior lectures and professors, but also and especially that these presumably intelligent people do not by themselves uncover and take vigorous exception to any such trend as we daily meet them among many politicians and in the majority of the media. Why does this almost never happen?

Should it not be the most dignified social and historic task to a university to do this - not least in view of the multi-religious and multi-ethnic situation, in which the western world is these years?

At any case our secularised and positivistic view of the world - which modern physics, linguistics and neurology can no longer verify - is hardly 300 years old, whereas religious paradigms have persisted for almost half a million years in one or the other aspect. In other words, regarding the long history of civilization we are extreme, not the others. Why not show a little humility instead of being convinced of the superiority of western culture? On what unproblematic and self-evident definition of truth and reality is it at all possible to define »progress« in history?

Or are we actually capable of finding a certain« irreversibility« in world history, as certain scholars now allege?

In that case: Was it »irreversible«, when in the fourteenth century BC, the Egyptian pharaoh Aknaton suddenly introduced monotheism, which, however, was utterly removed immediately after his death? Was it »irreversible«, when Aristarchos conception of a heliocentric world view from the third century BC was succeeded by the geocentric world view of Ptolemy in the second century AD.? Was it »irreversible«, when immediately before the Christian era the Roman republic (almost 500 years of age) was followed by an empire, which was going to last for more than 400 years, the first period of which was crowned as a golden age by common accent? »Irreversibility«(?) - or rather a necessary adaptation for altered circumstances?

Was it »irreversible«, when the »dark« Middle Ages and the Christian faith replaced the rationalistic and sceptical Antiquity, at the same time as the Arab world enjoyed a cultural bloom? And what else was the medieval worship of saints, but the pagan polytheism in a new disguise? - But »better«?

Was the Christian mass extermination of the Jews in the Middle Ages and modern time »irreversible« compared to the Moslem tolerance towards the same people? Was the change from the Russian tsar-empire to the Communist regime »irreversible«? Is the record for suicide of modern capitalistic society »irreversible«as compared with primitive societies, where some places suicide is an unknown idea?

Is modern Danish art »irreversible« compared to Leonardo da Vinci? Is the technological civilization, which has produced two world wars and a threatening ecological collapse, the »irreversible« gold of history?

That goes without saying, hopefully, that any form of cultural evolutionism is a result of a random selection of phenomena. You may also - no matter what standards of truth and ethics you put forward - substantiate that our culture is the most inhuman and barbaric that has ever existed.

However, this is not the intention. The intention, on the other hand, is to establish that a cultural relativistic approach to history and not least to our own present, own ethics and own world view is the only scientific as well as political point of view, you can adopt.

To establish that simply the faintest notion of progress in history in an absolute sense, whether its name is Social Darwinism or irreversibility cannot be substantiated empirically, indeed it is absurd, and, what is worse, it may justify a Fascist regime. That there is no Truth in one culture, which has not represented a falsehood in another culture during world history. That all that we understand as common sense to future generations may be conceived as the most reactionary superstition. That people with foreign customs and religions are human beings with a heart of flesh and blood, from whom we may learn something. That civilization can develop into barbarity to the same extent as the opposite can be the case.

In acknowledgement of the multi-cultural situation, into which modern society to a higher and higher extent develops, we think that it should be the instructors duty, partly in the media, partly during the lessons, to demonstrate the empirical and scientific obviousness of the cultural relativistic conception. To disclose - in the light of an overwhelming education - that all religions, all ideologies, all truths are ethically as well as epistemologically relative (and irreversible by no means), not least, ones own, although it is two thousand years old. That this will not cause all-consuming chaos, neither in society, no at the university, as some have asserted - no more than the epoch-making revolutions by Copernicus and Darwin did.

That the opposite to this, any faith in Absolutes, one Truth, one God, one Danish civilization and every sort of racism and intolerance towards foreigners and people who think differently will increase and develop into killing of these people. That the historical precedents of this development are legion.

By Jens-André P. Herbener
Published in Faklen (The Torch) No. 1, 1996