Friday, August 3, 2012

11. European identity?

Europe needs something like a European identity. If there is no essence to culture or identity, as I claim in a previous piece, what does identity entail? Among other things, identity is associated with a shared destiny. European integration was started to prevent further wars in Europe. Next, Europe was needed for the economy. Now it is needed above all to achieve a coherent financial, fiscal and foreign policy. However, while some shared destiny is necessary it is not sufficient. We should not only need each other but also be willing and able to collaborate. We should not only share interests but also values and views. For example: the relation between citizen and state (democracy), rule of law, separation of powers and of church and state.

On a deeper level there is more at stake. At the basis of culture lie fundamental mental categories according to which people see the world and themselves. Is knowledge of the world objective or constructed, are rationality and emotions separate or entwined, are we at the mercy of our environment or masters of it, oriented towards risk or towards certainty, is the human being fundamentally good or evil, can perfection be reached in this world or only in a hereafter, is stability or change central, unity or diversity, are people primarily individuals or members of groups, is there only self-interest or also altruism?

In such basic categories people in Europe are as different as they are equal. They largely derive from classical Greek and Christian traditions. But those themselves yield opposites. The ancient Greeks fought on the question whether stability or change are fundamental: fixed elements or a flowing river? Plato was oriented towards absolutes and universals, and Aristotle towards specific circumstances. In Europe we have been arguing for a long time about the primacy of reason or emotion, nature or culture, unity or diversity.

Mental categories shift during the development of knowledge, society and economy. In traditional societies people are more one with the (familial, local) group and trust is more personal, while in economically more developed countries people are more autonomous and trust is more based on impersonal arrangements of laws and other institutions.

Any two people will not have the same points in common as any other two. With some we have this in common, with others something else. There may not be a single basic idea that is shared by all. Then there is no essence. That does not mean that we do not form a community. The philosopher Wittgenstein spoke of family resemblance: Pete looks like John, who looks like Charles. Pete does not look at all like Charles, but is nevertheless connected to him through John. Instead of essence we have spots of coagulation of unity in fields of diversity. This coagulation is perhaps more dense within Europe than beyond it. But not as dense as within nations.

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