Simon Glendinning – Europe: A Philosophical History – review essay by Corina Stan


goodreads 2021 Europe: A Philosophical History, Part 1: The Promise of Modernity by Simon Glendinning

Europe: A Philosophical History

by Corina Stan 26-4-2022

Over the past few years, a number of crises—the “Greek crisis,” the “refugee crisis,” Brexit and most recently the war unfolding in Ukraine—have raised the question of Europe’s identity: What is Europe? How does it understand itself? How does it weigh cultural inheritance against contemporary economic and political challenges? How does it define its borders and affirm its values at moments when competing historical narratives and geopolitical claims clash? In trying to answer such questions, one inevitably finds oneself searching for a foundational account of Europe.

Published in two parts in July of last year, Simon Glendinning’s Europe: A Philosophical History is a book of ambitious, world-encompassing thoughts meant for anyone interested in the old continent and the philosophical foundation of the European Union, modernity and the discourse on Man, history and the significance of our lives. Its publication has probably been anticipated by many readers of his books on continental philosophy, phenomenology, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Derrida. This book instructs about fundamental questions like: What is philosophy? Where does it get its authority? What is “philosophical history,” and how are we to understand its archeo-teleo-eschatological claims? Why were Europeans so sure of their exemplary humanity? Where are we now, and what might the future look like?

Glendinning, head of the European Institute at the London School of Economics, writes not as a historian illuminating “the fate of peoples and fatherlands,” but as a philosopher mapping “the European self-understanding” in “the epic philosophical narratives of Man and his history.” This difference is thematized throughout the two volumes as a tension between empirical history (events that shaped the world, such as wars, economic crises, colonialism and so on, often narrated following the European historian’s “golden thread” that runs from Greece and Rome through Christianity to the modern age) and philosophical history (how thinkers from Immanuel Kant to Francis Fukuyama have thought about the meaning and sense of world history). The book often reads like a tribute to Jacques Derrida, whose readings of Kant, UNESCO lectures (known as The Other Heading), and Specters of Marx provide the scaffolding and some of the leitmotifs woven through these volumes. Like Derrida, Glendinning thinks it important to move beyond both Eurocentrism and “the anti-Eurocentric recoil,” and orient “the inheritance that we are” toward the future of a “democracy to come.”

While I agree with Glendinning that we cannot not inherit the philosophical tradition bequeathed to us, its reconstruction in this book engages my responsibility, my ability to respond: existentially, intellectually and politically. All the more so since Glendinning claims to speak in the name of “we Europeans (even if with a measure of post-Brexit self-irony), a puzzling claim to community given his reliance mostly on a few Anglo-American, French and German male thinkers. Is it sufficient to understand that the European Union can be traced back to Kant’s faith in cosmopolitan political projects driven by rational interests? Given the state of the world, are we content with the vision of “a democracy to come?” The more one thinks about the complex realities of European history and its contemporary challenges, Glendinning’s account of philosophical history and his vision of the future seem more like a strange museum of hopeful abstractions than a conceptual home for our involved lives. It leaves me wondering whether this book testifies to the limits of philosophy—or at least of a certain way of understanding what philosophy does for us.

Europe, Glendinning argues, is tied up with the very idea of philosophy. It is the heir of ancient Greek culture, the birthplace of theoria—a discipline that is universal because no pre-given opinion is accepted uncritically, therefore none of its ideas are bound to local custom or any form of local humanness. Philosophy is also a question for itself; its critical impetus is self-directed, which makes its task infinite. Edmund Husserl viewed philosophers as creators of a spiritual Europe which, in virtue of its status as heir of theoria, became “a supranationality of a completely new sort.” Glendinning sees philosophy as inseparable from its mission to contribute to the universal community, and Europe’s geopolitical significance and identity is “irreducibly caught up with a geophilosophical, cosmopolitan, universal trajectory.”

Philosophical activity is premised on the anthropological notion of man as the thinking animal, endowed with reason and capable of speech. This distinctive anthropology, later drawn into the theology of Christian creationism (ens creatum, man made in the image of God), is at the heart of the European understanding of the history of Man as progression from a primitive state to a maximally rational life for all humanity: that is, from barbarism to civilization, from potentiality to the full realization of one’s rational capacities. Kant, Hegel and Marx all framed empirical history as a process of the self-realization of Man as Man: for them, everything that happened in the world, including crises, destruction and war, was part of a future-oriented history heading toward “a state of peace, freedom and well-being for all humanity.” Europe, Glendinning shows, was for these philosophers the universal and cosmopolitan horizon—the “promise of modernity” captured by the first volume’s title.

The unraveling of this promise is the initial subject of volume two, Beyond Modernity. At a time when globalization has reached its planetary limit, we can no longer rely on the exhausted discourse of Europe’s modernity as the avant-garde of humanity; worse, ours is “a world that is no world” (Heidegger). And yet, Glendinning expresses his faith in a more promising idea of cultural exemplarity “already making its way in Europe: not the idea of the best example of a universally compelling way to be for Man, not of Europe as the singular avant garde of a culture of universal humanity—but as the avant garde of a universalisable culture of singularities.” Glendinning is confident in the promise of “a new conception of Man and history, a new conception of being human” that he sees coalescing in European thought. What does that conception look like?

Glendinning formulates it drawing on Derrida, Isaiah Berlin and Stanley Cavell. Whereas Kant, Hegel and Marx narrated the progress of history around some version of the state (or State) and an abstract or collective protagonist (Man in pursuit of fully realized reason, or the proletariat), Glendinning inherits Berlin’s conception of the individual as an “unpredictably self-transforming being.” He takes Berlin’s “pluralism of values” not only as an acknowledgment that “human goals are many,” but also that “conflict is thus (tragically) unavoidable, that politics does not have an end, and hence cannot be used to justify ‘barbarities’ in the name of ‘some future perfection.’” Another name for pluralism, Glendinning argues, is democracy, which must maintain its openness, right to self-critique and perfectibility. The singular openness of philosophy to interrogating its own content has become, in this account, the endless perfectibility of democracy through commitment to collective deliberation and self-critique.

As Glendinning revisits Kant’s emphasis on singularity and unity in the philosophical project that has meanwhile become the European Union, he muses: “What is valuable for Europe overall is not a development in which the European community comes ever closer to being One; on the contrary, Europe’s own best-becoming depends entirely on its people and peoples remaining gathered as a developing Many.” The same principle of respect for singularity shapes, in Glendinning’s account, the ethos of interpersonal encounters and of political life: on one hand, he draws from ordinary-language philosophy, quoting Wittgenstein’s “attitude towards a soul” and Cavell’s investment in “perfectionism democratized”; on the other, he follows Derrida’s emphasis on respect for the singularity of every other, positing a “democracy to come” with no projected content. That is what makes democracy the only universalizable paradigm, Glendinning agrees with Derrida; it would take Europe beyond Levinas’s view of it as “the Bible and the Greeks” to include everyone, all others, anyone.

I am sympathetic to the premise of Europe: A Philosophical History. The legacy of the past is with us whether we want it or not, and we remain in need of a vision of the common good, a sense of the significance of our lives in this world. I think about these questions, however, at a remove from Glendinning’s position. A double remove, in fact: disciplinary and cultural. Philosophy and critical theory were part of my graduate training, but my primary disciplinary field is literary studies. I am also an avid reader of history. The cultural distance has itself a double valence: my academic home has been for a number of years in the United States, but I was born and raised in Eastern Europe, that region considered since the eighteenth century Western Europe’s backward, exotic, conflict-ridden other (as Larry Wolff shows in Inventing Eastern Europe). So while I grew up as a kind of outsider within—becoming fluent in languages that would grant me access to Western culture, studying European art and classical music in order to become “universal”—now I probably count as an insider afar: a European by birth, sensibility and education residing outside of the European space, therefore alert to the swindles promoted by, and in the name of, European culture. Because of this double remove, Glendinning’s claim to community in the repeated formulation “we, the Europeans” and “the inheritance that we are” makes me uneasy in more ways than one.

Glendinning can only be uneasy himself about the deeply problematic discourse he is reconstructing on its own terms: “We today are the inheritors of the ‘modern’ European understanding of the world and the significance of our lives that belongs to this epoch of archeo-teleological reason, and its inseparable anthropocentrism, androcentrism, ethnocentrism and Eurocentrism.” But although Glendinning acknowledges this discourse is “unravelling,” he declines to unravel it further. His explicit aim “is not to clear it all up or to be a latter-day Mr Fixit who will explain ‘what is needed’ or ‘what is to be done’ to sort it all out and put things straight.” He simply wants “to come to terms with our time.” So he turns back to the “Dead White European Male Philosophers,” whose texts, although “history-producing” and thus “complicit … with the worst,” “also promise a future that is not White through and through, not European through and through, and not Male through and through.” I find the leap from the first to the second volume deeply troubling: Can we recognize these philosophical ideas as “our inheritance” without acknowledging that we are also, if not directly complicit with, certainly implicated in, the “horror” (Glendinning’s term) of the history they have produced? 

As I read Europe: A Philosophical History, I am struck by the unshakable determination to “forge ahead” in the reconstruction and orientation toward the future of a discourse that, from the outset, has been suspect to its own authors for its cultivated distance from empirical history. Glendinning traces these worries scrupulously: Kant’s anxiety, later shared by Hegel and Marx, that “only a novel” could result from a priori history; Paul Valéry’s question in 1919 whether Europe would be what it was “in reality—that is, a little promontory on the continent of Asia,” or “what it seem[ed]—that is, the elect portion of the terrestrial globe, the pearl of the sphere, the brain of a vast body”; Levinas’s admission that philosophical history is not recognizable in empirical history; and Bernard Williams’s worry that he might be writing “irresponsible history.” Following Derrida like an infallible prophet, Glendinning sets his nervousness aside in pursuit of the “heading” of Europe—a strange metaphor that he seems to forget, as one might say with Nietzsche, is a metaphor—apparently overlooking that all the philosophical accounts he reconstructs (including his own) are just that: not fiction but ways of narrating human experiences through selection, privileging some over others.

Glendinning refers to the discourse of philosophical history as the “inheritance that we are,” but fails to raise the question of its incompleteness, and of the accountability for what that discourse has left out. For example, setting the beginning of Europe in ancient Greece, the birthplace of theoria, is a convenient beginning of the story that obscures the cultural exchanges around the Mediterranean basin and the varied races mixing there. (Glendinning does not acknowledge that many people assume the whiteness of ancient Greece when they think of it as the cradle of European civilization. Archaeologists and classical scholars have debunked that misconception, which was perpetuated in part by centuries-long familiarity with white Roman copies of Greek sculptures, originally colored.) One can wonder what difference it would have made if philosophers like Kant and Hegel, instead of projecting world history as a linear trajectory beginning in Greece and Rome, with Europe at the avant-garde, would have imagined it growing out of the intimacies of continents. The Middle Ages have been tucked away, for the most part, into a wrinkle in time, including eight hundred years of Muslim rule and significant cultural exchanges between the Islamic world and Europeans living in the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily and Malta. Glendinning doesn’t discuss the absence of slaves in the discourse on Man and only alludes casually to European colonialism—never in terms of its human cost, or from the perspective of its victims. This philosophical discourse is then shelved as “exhausted,” a formulation that leaves one no responsible way of engaging critically with it. Between the moment we’ve closed volume one and opened volume two, our time has become one of “historical opacity” and we begin anew with the perplexing claim: “We do not know how we got here.”

Is Glendinning being ironic? Or is that “we” truly a diagnosis of collective confusion, marking the point where philosophy has become oblivious to its cultivated ignorance of history? Glendinning points in this direction when he recapitulates, with Derrida, the blows suffered by the European self-understanding: Copernicus’s “cosmological blow” (the decentering of the earth in our understanding of the cosmos), Darwin’s “biological blow” (the decentering of the human in our understanding of creation), Freud’s “psychological blow” (the decentering of reason through the acknowledgment of unconscious motives and drives) and the “Marxist blow” (not only the decentering of God and its substitution with man by Marx, but also the dehumanizing violence of Stalinism and Nazism).

But what about, one wonders, the anti-colonial blow, an eloquent rejection of the Eurocentric discourse on Man and civilizing imperialism? In Discourse on Colonialism (1955), the Martinican poet and thinker Aimé Césaire agreed that Nazism was “the supreme barbarism,” but argued that the murderous violence of the Nazis was the boomerang effect of an “indefensible” European civilization, and that before it had “been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the ‘coolies’ of India, and the ‘niggers’ of Africa.” In The Wretched of the Earth (1961), Frantz Fanon echoed Césaire’s indictment of Europe and its discourse on Man: “Let us leave this Europe which never stops talking of man yet massacres him at every one of its street corners, at every corner of the world. For centuries Europe has brought the progress of other men to a halt and enslaved them for its own purposes and glory; for centuries it has stifled virtually the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called ‘spiritual adventure.’”

Perhaps Glendinning omits authors like Césaire and Fanon because he is interested in the European self-understanding only, not in how “others” saw Europe. But then, here’s Jean-Paul Sartre prefacing Fanon’s text by taking stock of the distribution of “Man” and everyone else: “Not so very long ago, the earth numbered two thousand million inhabitants: five hundred million men [hommes] and one thousand five hundred million natives [indigènes]. The former owned the Word, the latter borrowed it” (my own modified translation). Sartre memorably describes Fanon’s intervention as “the strip-tease of our humanism.” Here it is, he writes, “not a pretty sight. It was nothing but an ideology of lies, an exquisite justification for pillage; its honeyed words, its affectation of sensibility were only alibis for our aggression.”

I can only speculate that Glendinning does not engage with such views because they are part of what he glosses over as “the anti-Eurocentric recoil” of postcolonial criticism, which lacks a “differentiated vision of Europe.” But Sartre’s passage sheds light on the hubris of the “European self-understanding” as Glendinning inherits and practices it: the self-image of European Man does not emerge in relation to the mirror of others, but only in the image of God, or reliant exclusively on one’s own lights. Glendinning begins volume two with Berlin’s reflection on the Cold War as a war over the European philosophical legacy; but I can imagine a different assessment of that legacy. The Bandung Conference in 1955 brought together representatives of 29 African and Asian countries, totaling over a billion people colonized by European powers—Richard Wright described it as “a kind of judgment upon that Western world.” Mentioning that judgment would be an opportunity to practice the inclusiveness of the vision Glendinning puts forward, premised on the “capacity to see how things look” to other people.

This might also help put the discourse of philosophical history in perspective, giving some measure of what it has obscured. The French brought more slaves to the sugar plantations in Guadeloupe alone than were ever brought to North America; Marx acknowledged that slavery was indispensable to the development of Western economies, and the legacy of colonialism lives on in the monuments of Western culture (the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles is opulently decorated with gold mined by the slaves in Saint-Domingue). After World War II, immigrants from former colonies, Turkey and Eastern Europe helped rebuild, and still contribute, to Western economies. The “Windrush scandal” and Britain’s hostile immigration policies suggest that many of these people are not allowed to live as “unpredictably self-transforming beings.” President Emmanuel Macron urging the Algerian youth “not to dwell on past crimes” and claiming that Africa should adopt French because it is “the language of freedom” suggests that colonialism is decidedly not a thing of the past.

It’s not just external “others” who have been silenced or ignored. For a long time, “Europe” has designated a very small minority that claimed to represent a whole. Glendinning himself reconstructs the “European self-understanding,” yet his “Europe” remains a metonymy: he draws almost exclusively on a handful of French and German philosophers, and the occasional English figure, with the implication either that everyone who is not British, French or German isn’t European; or that they—Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, Greeks, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Spanish people, Italians, etc.—are assumed to share the “dominant conception of Europe.” One can only assume that they should all feel concerned by Glendinning’s paternalistic address: “If you are yourself a European, or have been significantly informed by the modern European understanding of the world, then the subjectivity that is interrogated here is yours, and I will be relating the story of the development of the understanding of the world that you have inherited, and whose inheritance you are” (my emphasis).

If we look at developments in parts of Europe Glendinning leaves out, the idealism of philosophical history might not be justified in our time. Moreover, his account has no explanatory power when it comes to the erosion of democratic norms in countries like Poland, Hungary or Spain, or to the rise of far-right movements like Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamicization of the Occident (PEGIDA). In Twilight of Democracy (2020), Anne Applebaum describes the appeal of such movements in terms of a felt discomfort with the complexity of contemporary problems—immigration, gender diversity, religious pluralism and secularism—a discomfort looking to be alleviated through the unity promised by simpler visions of society, glimpsed through restorative nostalgia. Such visions are informed by powerful symbols and imaginaries rooted in the historical episodes Glendinning glosses over: the German far right has used images of Greek, supposedly white, sculptures in their electoral posters to reclaim a European identity that needs to be protected at all costs from non-white refugees, represented as hordes of invaders; a video for Vox, the far-right party in Spain, features its leader Santiago Abascal riding across a Southern landscape, like one of the knights fighting to regain Andalusia from the Arabs.

In the context of the current war, the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy has addressed the European Union in the very terms that Glendinning associates with Europe as a philosophical project: freedom and democracy. These ideas are indeed central to the “European self-understanding,” a term that gains special resonance in the conflict with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. While it would be unfair to expect Glendinning’s book to have anticipated the “tectonic shift” in European history brought about by this war, the latter does allow us to see its merits and partiality in a crisper light: on one hand, the book’s emphasis on Europe as a philosophical political project rooted in Kant’s vision of a cosmopolitan community of nations stands out as likely its most important contribution; on the other, the conflict suggests how a solipsistic focus on “the European self-understanding” can limit our view at exactly the time we need to expand it to include broader vistas and other political imaginaries, sedimented over centuries. Ukraine is a country with a layered history on the margin of Europe; it is also a buffer zone, where for a thousand years empires and federations (Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) disputed their borders. Ukraine has both reminded Europe what it stands for, and made it understand—given the EU’s recent collective decision to rearm itself—the insufficiency of its vision of universal freedom.

Glendinning’s vision rests on a commitment to endless deliberation, but his reluctance to assign any specific content to the common good makes him suspicious of utopian thinking on the left: he sees its imaginary future as “the becoming universal of the political activist’s own political sensibility” who, like everyone else, is “crooked timber” and “wants to be a ruler.” In so cautiously avoiding concrete debate on the left, however, he makes it hard to imagine what a political engagement with actual problems—which are always specific and circumscribed—might look like if it were to respect the principles of universality. And yet, Glendinning claims to inherit Berlin’s empirical view of politics, which takes for granted human idiosyncrasies and the pluralism of values. He claims to renounce teleology in order to keep the future open for those born after us. That strikes me as an ethical vision rooted in a metaphysics of a historyless, featureless “other” that fetishizes their singularity but offers nothing in the way of a recognition of who they actually are. A democracy as the promise of openness to every other sounds noble and as good an aspiration as it gets, but there is no indication just how we would get there. 

It is as if in an indeterminate future this “other” might become free of the burdens of history and we could all forget the “horror story” by keeping in view only our good intentions; as if “we” could just seamlessly extricate ourselves from our present challenges—the concrete difficulties of multiculturalism, of environmental migration—and somehow find in our future selves a beautifully formed “attitude towards a[nother] soul.” What about our lives as we live them today? One wonders if that’s where philosophy (at least in the way Glendinning practices it, inextricable from the overdetermined referent “Europe”) reaches its limit: in its inability to think through the highly specific challenges of the contemporary age, which have much to do with the empirical history that the discourse of philosophical history has studiously kept at a distance. No wonder that each representative of philosophical history—Glendinning, Marx, Hegel…—has accused his predecessor of formalism; it’s hard to see how Glendinning himself can avoid that charge.

Glendinning’s claim to community takes me back to Stanley Cavell’s The Claim of Reason, which reads: “Once you recognize a community as yours, then it does speak for you until you say it doesn’t, i.e., until you show that you do.” Cavell teaches me that, if I am to say something politically (rather than be mute), I have to express my discomfort more clearly as dissent: that is, as disagreement not about the symbolic contract of our community, but about its content. Simply put: “the inheritance that we are” has to be, is, more than the discursive “thread” of philosophical history written by (mostly) white male thinkers: Greek theoria, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Husserl, Nietzsche, Berlin, Derrida. We inherit all our past, not just a convenient selection of idealist visions that leave untouched the facts of our lives. For many, the promise of Europe has always receded in the distance. As philosopher Nadia Yala Kisukidi writes, there have always been two Europes, the difficult one in which she lives, and a second one, “constantly postponed, only existing on the hypothetical mode of what is yet to come.”

Ironically, Glendinning repeats Valéry’s question, quoted by Derrida: “What are you going to do today?” He points to an answer, but it remains empty since he stops short of practicing it: he claims to move beyond the two alternatives of Eurocentrism and “the anti-Eurocentric recoil” (which, in themselves, reproduce the logic of “the West and the Rest” denounced by Stuart Hall), yet he remains Eurocentric through and through. The only way to move beyond an opposition is to take seriously, and engage with, the “other”—here, those who rejected, for historical reasons, the Eurocentric “heading,” and those “other,” non-Western Europeans who have been struggling to balance the lure of democratic ideals with the layered inheritance of their history. It seems to me that philosophy itself, in its concrete practice, needs to acknowledge—in the full sense developed by Cavell—both its other, empirical history, and its others, the non-white, non-male philosophers. Imagining empty visions of the future for universal individuals—raceless, genderless, without religion, with no individualizing features—is like walking on ice, as Wittgenstein put it. Back to the rough ground, he admonished.

Put differently, one might just have to acknowledge that philosophy can only take us so far; Isaiah Berlin recognized this, and thought of himself increasingly as a historian of ideas. The contemporary world is too complex to ignore the concrete facts of our involved lives and the historical legacies that inform the present, some that bind, some that antagonize us today—us, Europeans.

Art credit: Edward Quin. The known world shown through clouds from the commencement of the Crusades, A.D. 1100, to the division of the Mogul Empire on the death of Kublai Khan, A.D. 1294, 1830. Collection of the David Rumsey Map Center at Stanford University.