Christopher Dawson: A Cultural Mind in the Age of the Great War
By Joseph T. Stuart.
Catholic University of America Press, 2022.
Paperback, 448 pages, $29.95.

Reviewed by Christopher S. Morrissey.

The University Bookman is proud to offer this three-review symposium on Joseph T. Stuart’s important new book, Christopher Dawson: A Cultural Mind in the Age of the Great War. Please join us on January 10, 2023, at 7:00 p.m. EST as we host Dr. Stuart on our monthly “The Book Gallery” webinar. Register to participate at this link. — The Editors

With this careful and detailed study of the life and work of Christopher Dawson (1899–1970), Joseph T. Stuart makes a significant contribution to the contemporary reassessment of Dawson’s historical scholarship. Dawson was largely ignored for two decades after his death, but his achievement is apparently now better understood after the interval of a generation, or so the well-received recent republication of many of his books suggests.

Stuart notes that Dawson set his mind to studying culture as “a common way of life.” This is an idea which necessarily includes the spiritual “vision of reality” that actually unifies any given people. With such an irreducibly religious orientation, the “cultural mind” of Dawson is a clear example, argues Stuart, of John Henry Newman’s “philosophical habit” of mind being applied to history. 

It is a capacious approach, being open to literary, philosophical, and spiritual observations about reality. This interdisciplinary method, keen to build “intellectual bridges,” makes Dawson unusual among historians. Rather than losing sight of the universal when engaged in the specialized study of historical particulars, Stuart recognizes that Dawson’s quest for an “intellectual architecture” seeks to adequately embrace the whole field of data.

Although amenable to philosophical and theological approaches that are mindful of universal themes, Stuart observes that Dawson does not adopt such a stance at the expense of particular realities. Aristotle famously said in his Poetics that “poetry is something more scientific and serious than history, because poetry tends to give general truths while history gives particular facts.” Stuart’s book, however, explains at length how Dawson’s “cultural mind” avoids getting bogged down in a false dichotomy between the universal and the particular. Rather, by doing justice to both of these aspects, Dawson shows us a better way to contemplate history.

Stuart affirms how Dawson’s recognition of “boundary thinking” maintains appropriate boundaries between different scholarly disciplines. Nonetheless his thought is still quite eager to discern ways that mutual influence is possible; for example, mutual influence between politics and religion. Stuart also explains how Dawson’s “intellectual asceticism” consistently manifests itself in unusually clear writing and exemplary ideological restraint. 

Dawson’s greatest virtue, which Stuart focuses on in his fifth chapter, is a non-ideological focus on how religion plays a central role in cultural unity. Dawson is thus able to use religion to insightfully interpret and explain the interaction of world cultures. He avoids the allure of ideological narratives because he insists that any culture’s “way of life” can be appreciated in terms of its unique path towards transcendence. This element of transcendence is, for Dawson, primordial in the human condition. 

Human culture has social purposes that involve moral effort. Thus material and spiritual realities are continually interwoven in human experience. Dawson therefore keeps the inner, subjective realm of intellectual and mystical experience in a balanced tension with the external, more objective realm of human institutions and actions. 

In a most illuminating way, Stuart explains how the pioneering work of Friedrich von Hügel influenced Dawson in his recognition of religion as being a field of tensions that irreducibly embraces both the inner and the outer: i.e., human thought and experience, but human institutions too. Dawson insists on never reducing the tensions in one direction or the other. Accordingly, those who study religion must legitimately employ the human sciences. But Dawson also recognizes the legitimate need for philosophy and theology. And Stuart illustrates the point to great effect by contrasting Dawson’s own approach with that of more famous thinkers like Freud and Durkheim, whom Stuart shows to be more reductive.

Stuart cleverly displays Dawson’s intellectual embrace of both spirit and matter with a concise formula: “I/FWP” (where I = “ideas,” F = “folk,” W = “work,” and P = “place”). The slash is Stuart’s way of demarcating what he terms Dawson’s “moderate dualism” between two “metaphysically different” realms (since “I” involves spirit, but “FWP” involves matter). Although these different aspects can be distinguished, they are “interrelated orders of being” that are carefully investigated by Dawson’s effort not to reduce one realm to another.

The formula summarizes the analytical categories that Dawson inherited, which had been used by social science for the study of culture. Biology had discerned three aspects for scientific study: (1) organisms, (2) functioning, (3) in their environments. Social science then proceeded to make an analogous scientific study of human organisms: (F) folk, (W) at work, (P) in their geographical place. In his very valuable second chapter, Stuart discusses the influence of Patrick Geddes (1854–1932) on Dawson, showing how Dawson added the “I” to Geddes’ “FWP” formula: that is, Dawson insisted on joining study of the internal dimensions of culture with the “FWP” external dimensions of culture. 

Stuart also discusses, in his third chapter, how causation can proceed in both of the directions implicated in this fourfold matrix of tensions. The spiritual can influence the material (I→FWP), and the material can influence the spiritual (FWP→I). The sophistication of Dawson’s analysis anticipates later approaches, and Stuart convincingly suggests how Dawson, ahead of his time, still remains relevant today with his attention to irreducible elements of causality. 

In keeping with Dawson’s openness to philosophical analyses, my own supplement to Stuart’s insightful excavation of Dawson’s interdisciplinary method would be to point out how it is consonant with the causal analyses of Aristotle. Dawson’s achievement in history can be understood in philosophical terms, I think, as illustrating the perennial value of Aristotle’s modeling of causes. Famously, Aristotle described the four aspects necessary for causal analysis of any reality. An agent cause (e.g., a carpenter) fashions the material cause (e.g., some wood) according to the formal cause (e.g., the pattern of a table) that orients it towards its final cause (e.g., a structure eminently suitable for placing dinner upon).

Similarly, biological science identifies organisms (agent causes within the ecosystem) that fashion niches within the material environment (material cause) according to identifiably characteristic functions (species-specific final causes). For example, honeybees collect (agent cause) flower nectar (material cause) to make honey (final cause). Hence, the biological model of “FWP” that Dawson builds on employs the same Aristotelian implicit identification of causes: i.e., the relevant agent, material, and purposive factors.

What Dawson adds to the analysis is a recognition of the fact that human behavior is not confined to a narrow range of functions, as is the behavior of honeybees or any other non-human species. The extraordinarily wide range of human behavior can be explained by the fact that many different “ideas” are the intrinsic formal causes at the root of human action (namely, what Stuart sums up as Dawson’s unique “I”-contribution to the improved Geddes formula). 

This spiritual diversity must therefore be recognized by the historian who wants to chronicle the empirical truth about the human species. Rather than reduce the “I” to any other aspect (i.e., any other causal factors already found in the “FWP”), the historian needs to recognize the irreducible nature of the spiritual “ideas” (“I”) that the human mind brings to bear upon the “FWP” side of the formula. In brief, human ideas consistently manifest themselves as widely diverse formal causes in their own right. And yet, as Dawson insists, the magnificently diverse formal causes involved in religion and culture are all potentially legitimate pathways towards spiritual transcendence.

Perhaps Dawson’s “cultural mind” thereby offers an important lesson for anyone today who is caught up in the polarizing enmity of the culture wars. It is typical of contemporary cultural warriors to fall into the false dichotomy of pitting the particular against the universal. But that is a false dichotomy that Dawson avoided, as Stuart convincingly and patiently explains in his book.

Modern technocrats have consistently embraced a global civilization heralded by technological advances. They seek a “new world order” of civilization, upending and redefining centuries-old laws and customs. However, as the philosopher Roger Scruton has pointed out in An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, culture (Kultur) was first distinguished from civilization (Zivilisation) by the German writer Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803). Scruton’s discussion helps contextualize Dawson’s “cultural mind,” so permit me to relay it in a brief digression.

Herder saw culture as the lifeblood of a people, the moral energy of a society. Civilization, in contrast, was society’s veneer of manners, law, and technology. The German romantics after Herder (Schelling, Schiller, Fichte, Hegel, and Hölderlin) accepted this distinction, and saw culture as the essence of a nation. Culture, they said, is the spiritual force in a nation’s customs, beliefs, and practices. As such, it is articulated in art, religion, and history. 

This romantic view of culture is a particularist view of culture exemplified by many of those political actors who today protest against globalization. They want to protect any nation’s “common culture” against supranational schemes detrimental to a particular, national culture. There is also a classical universalist view of culture, exemplified by the cosmopolitans of today’s political scene. This view derives not from Herder, says Scruton, but from Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835), founder of the modern university. 

Herder saw culture as a natural growth, whereas Humboldt saw it as cultivation. For Humboldt, not everyone possesses culture, because not everyone has the leisure, inclination, or ability. Hence a university-educated elite is needed to preserve, enhance, and pass on culture.

But globalization and the Internet now drive the disappearance of Humboldt’s ideal of “high culture” guarded by an educated elite. So what then will replace it? The technocratic elite looks to an imminent advance in civilization, to be achieved through neoliberalism’s digitally-enhanced industrialism. Such progress, they hope, is the destiny of all nations, rich or poor.

Yet, according to Herder’s distinction, such progress can only be an advance in technology, i.e., an advance in economic Zivilisation, not in Kultur. After all, for Herder, culture is the inner life of a nation, and technology is only the civilized outer shell. For Herder, culture is life. But Humboldt’s ideal of elite “high culture” is being replaced by a democratized “popular culture” or an incipiently authoritarian “populism.” 

In other words, Herder’s “common culture” is vanishing just as much as Humboldt’s “high culture,” now that globalization and the Internet serve up “popular culture” and “populism” to the modern world. The problem with such “popular culture” or “populism” is that any artifact or activity can be cultural for it, as long as it forms a sense of common identity to rally around. Any popular choice is acceptable, because cultural identity is now mimetically reducible to the lowest common memetic denominator: vox populi, vox Dei.

To Dawson’s “cultural mind,” however, this is unacceptable. Surely some artifacts and activities are antithetical to true culture. Stuart insightfully explains how for Dawson, when any one of the “FWP” parts of the formula (“folk,” “work,” or “place”) usurps the rightful role of the “I” part (“ideas”), political religions and spiritual pathologies enter into history. Following the exaltation of “F,” “W,” or “P,” Stuart observes with Dawson that (respectively) Nazism, communism, or nationalism occurs, to the detriment of true religion. 

Stuart’s book is an enlightening and engrossing exhibition of Dawson’s intellectual architecture. Stuart deserves to be commended for carefully bringing Dawson’s profound “I/FWP” causal insights to our attention. Their power of illumination is so great that this formula deserves to be employed by others in further studies of the cultural deformities of our age. For our contemporary ills are caused by the very ideological distortions that Dawson’s broad-minded historical studies so ably expose. Thankfully, Stuart’s book aids the mind who would turn to Dawson, a mind curious about culture’s causes.

Christopher S. Morrissey is Sessional Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Trinity Western University. He is the author of Hesiod: Theogony / Works and Days and The Way of Logic

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