Conversations On Philanthropy
Emerging Questions on Liberality and Social Thought

Western Culture at the American Crossroads: The Conflict Over the Nature of Science and Reason

Philanthropy or, in Frederick Turner’s (2005) terminology, the gift economy, is based on the love of the good, the true, and the beautiful. As such, the gift economy itself can be understood as constituting the moral order, the scientific order, and the artistic order(s), each of which have their own institutions, including those which conduct what we commonly think of as philanthropy proper. All true philanthropy thus arises out of love, whether it be the love of virtue, love of knowledge, or love of art. All of these are part of philanthropy itself—the love of mankind.

As such, Arthur Pontynen and Rod Miller’s book, Western Culture at the American Crossroads: Conflicts Over the Nature of Science and Reason does in fact deal with the underlying concerns of philanthropy itself in the authors’ discussion of the slow destruction of the West’s ideas of the good, the true, and the beautiful, culminating in their explicit rejection by postmodern thought.  The book is a densely philosophical, high-level discussion of art theory which argues against the hegemonic modernist/postmodernist paradigm we are now living under. Overall, a book that covers ontology, epistemology, ethics, philosophy of science, math and geometry, reason, truth, beauty, culture, history, theology, metaphysics, and art theory and history is necessarily difficult to summarize—even for an interdisciplinarian like myself. Yet at the same time, the authors’ message is simple: we need to return to having a culture of wisdom. Being Augustinians, their preference is a Trinitarian culture, but they do acknowledge Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, etc. as wisdom cultures the world would be impoverished to lose, suggesting they are open to a more global classical-theological culture that is still, nevertheless pre-Modernist/Postmodernist.

In wisdom cultures there is concern with Being, a belief in an objective world to understand, and thus a belief in the actual existence of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Pontynen and Miller argue that modernist/postmodernist culture believes in only subjectivity and becoming and, thus, rejects wisdom, Being, objectivity, goodness, truth, and beauty. Insofar as this does in fact sum up postmodern culture, and insofar as we are living in a postmodern culture, this certainly has to have a negative effect on philanthropy.

Indeed, if we look to Europe (indeed, Pontynen and Miller discuss “European exceptionalism,” which they identify with postmodernism, comparing it with “American exceptionalism,” which they identify with the classical-Judeo-Christian Anglosphere), we see far less philanthropy and far more government involvement in morals, science, and the arts than we do in the United States. Yet the influence of modernism/postmodernism is moving the United States more towards Europe—something which Pontynen and Miller see as a problem—one which will lead to violent destruction. It would seem that they are right insofar as the more the United States moves toward postmodern culture, the weaker we see private philanthropy become and the stronger and more pervasive we see government become.

However, the values subjectivist may come away from this book thinking the authors are anything but their friends, especially when they say we should engage in “a willful dedication to the pursuit of objective truth and goodness” (148). Does this deny values subjectivism? Not at all. It may be that there are in fact a set of human values that are true and good—but that different people rank them different ways. Thus would values subjectivism be retained in the way it was always meant, recognizing the possibility of ordinal variety, without having to assert complete relativism. It would still be improper to assert your value rankings over others, even as some set of values is agreed to be proper, another improper. I doubt even the strongest relativist would agree that someone who values oppressing women, molesting children, killing people who look and believe differently than he does, and robbing people is but an example of the rich tapestry of humanity which we should therefore tolerate if not defend. The fact that such a person’s values would not be defended suggests even the supposed relativist believes in some level of objective goodness and truth. We need to stop pretending otherwise. On this they are right that postmodernism is incoherent.

Pontynen and Miller further argue that postmodernists view everything as power relations, as Master-Slave relations (Hegel, Marx). Insofar as this kind of interaction is the kind found in the political economy, postmodernists view everything as necessarily political. As a result, everything becomes subsumed under the government. However, Turner identifies four human economies—the political economy, the gift economy, the market economy, and the divine economy—and each of these economies have their own kinds of interactions appropriate to those economies: value-creating market exchange in the market economy, reputation-creating love exchange in the gift economy, sacrificial exchange in the divine economy, and of course, power-creating master-slave relations in the political economy. As such, postmodern culture is in fact destructive of a wide diversity of human interactions, reducing complex human behaviors and interactions to the simplest, most destructive kind.

Thus, Pontynen and Miller lament the loss of Medieval conceptions of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty to Modernism and Postmodernism, which have reduced everything to a nihilistic, violence-promoting will to power. If one were to just read their book (and watch the news), ignorant of the recent work by Steven Pinker (2012) and Matt Ridley (2011), one would think we have grown increasingly violent since the collapse of the Medieval worldview. However, we have seen quite the opposite trend taking place: as we have moved from Renaissance to Modernism to Postmodernism, the world has become less and less violent. Whether this move is a result of changing culture, expanding free markets, or increasing population density making being polite a rational survival mechanism—or something else—the authors’ claims about the violence inherent in the modernist/postmodernist system seem to show the tensions between systems that promote uniformity of values, as do some wisdom cultures, and those that allow for greater diversity. It may be true that a culture that values Truth, Goodness, and Beauty is less violent than the one we have now—but such a claim could only be true if our world’s loss of violence is due to the expansion of free markets, in spite of culture. It may also be that the pluralism, perspectivism, multiculturalism, and relativism of postmodernism have had a positive influence as well. A person 100 percent certain he has the Truth and that what he does is the Good can be much more easily convinced to harm others who endanger those values than can one who is never certain he has the truth or that he has a monopoly on the good. However, one who outright rejects truth and the good can equally be convinced to support just about any movement. And if all is but power relations, isn’t it better for you to be in power than someone else? Certainty gave us the Inquisition; nihilistic political romanticism (that is, postmodernism broadly understood) gave us the French Revolution, Nazism, and the Russian Revolution/Stalinism.

The Romantic philosophy of Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, et al. (the line to postmodernism) gives rise to a Romantic politics realized in the French Revolution, the communist revolutions, and, in its explicitly racist, irrationalist version, Nazism. In this sense, Pontynen and Miller are correct that the modernist/postmodernist world view can lead to the worst kinds of violence, insofar as it leads to political romanticism married to bureaucratic efficiency (Milan Kundera, at least, agrees that communism is a version of political romanticism). Though the periods between eruptions of romantic politics have been relatively peaceful, I think they do make strong their implicit argument—and history has proven them on this—that Romantic politics is necessarily violent, brutal, and barbaric. Pontynen and Miller go so far as to equate Romanticism with sociopathy; in politics (in which they include progressivism as political Romanticism), at least, given the above examples, there is little question the equation is correct. Which should make one suspect the Romantic philosophers, the philosophers of will, as well. When you replace love with will, the world degenerates into violence.

“Will” is one of the central ideas Pontynen and Miller attack. Whether it be the will to power, the will of the people, the will of any given person, or, in what they see as a mistake made by Christianity itself, the will of God. For them, God does not do things because He wills it, but because God is the embodiment of Truth, Good, and Beauty. God thus does things out of love, not will. The universe exists not because God willed it, but because God is Love. They reject the notion of will because with will, one does not need reason, truth, goodness, love, or beauty as guides for one’s actions. If one has enough force and power, one can impose one’s will on others. Insofar as the gift economy promotes the good, true, and beautiful, their idea of will is in fact in opposition of the very idea of philanthropy. Indeed, if one combines will with, say, the good, you can see yourself as justified in imposing your idea of the good on others—an idea that suggests using the force and power of government rather than the voluntary nature of true philanthropy. Will, and thus modernism/postmodernism, thus destroys culture.  This point bears greater contemplation in the context of discussions about the virtue of donor intent.

For Pontynen and Miller, the ideal culture is one that is classical, Judeo-Christian, and Anglosphere in its conception of tradition-informed cultural change. Those familiar with the work of Hayek on spontaneous orders will recognize what is meant by the latter. Common law, free markets, and even language are examples of this kind of tradition-informed cultural change historically promoted most explicitly in the Anglosphere. Indeed, I would argue that Hayek’s spontaneous order is a more detailed explanation of Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand”, and its explanatory power can be expanded to include social as well as market orders. What is typically thought of as the double-stranded DNA of Western culture—the classical and Judeo-Christian traditions—is improved with their addition of a third strand, the Anglosphere. They do warn us, though, that “Should the Anglosphere shift from the classical-Judeo-Christian to modernism-postmodernism, then the traditionalism of English culture, previously understood as the bearer of wisdom, is transformed into the bearer of willful preference. Government based on willful preference—of the few or the many—destroys human rights for all” (143). If Pontynen and Miller are not in fact calling for a retreat to Medieval thinking, it is only because they acknowledge the importance of the Anglosphere to the maintenance of culture. It is thus a shame, then, that though they mention the Anglosphere, they hardly deal with this strand of cultural DNA at all. As a result, one is mostly left with the impression that everything has been going downhill since the writings of Aquinas, and things would be best if we were all Augustinians. Why must we go back? Is there not a way forward?

Frederick Turner has frequently observed (1986, 2006, 2007) that sometimes, in order to create the future, you have to break with the past, and sometimes in order to create the future, you have to break with the present and look to the past. Modernism/postmodernism is an example of the former; we are in a time requiring the latter. However, there is a difference between looking to the past to retreat from the present, and looking to the past to build the future from the present. Pontynen and Miller can help us understand what we might want to recover from the past, but their message is one of retreat. As Turner has shown in works ranging from Natural Classicism (1986) to Natural Religion (2006), we do not have to retreat; rather, we can take these insights and build a new future with a new culture—one that accepts all our cultural insights, from past to present, and across cultures.



Pinker, Steven.  2012.  The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.  New York: Viking.

Pontynen, Arthur and Rod Miller.  2011.  Western Culture at the American Crossroads:

Conflicts over the Nature of Science and Reason. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

Ridley, Matt.  2011.  The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves.  New York: HarperPerennial.

Turner, Frederick. 1986.  Natural Classicism.  VA: University of Virginia Press.

 ———.  2005.  “Creating a Culture of Gift.” Conversations on Philanthropy II: 27-58. ©2005 DonorsTrust.

———.  2006.  Natural Religion.  Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

———.  2007.  The Culture of Hope. New York: The Free Press.


Troy Camplin is an interdisciplinary scholar, the author of Diaphysics, and an adjunct professor at the University of North Texas at Dallas. He currently lives in Richardson, TX.

Read more reviews