Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Particularism and Universalism

Earlier today, I found myself listening to an Irish soccer commentator who was commentating (not a mistake) on a soccer match between and English and an Italian team. Before play began, he made some remarks about the stadium. The Irish national team had played there before and he referred familliarly to some of those games, expecting the viewer to remember them, and referring to "us" throughout.

This felt deliciously cosy to me. This is what I like about national identity. Shared memory; shared experience; a window on the world, with the world outside and us inside.

Then I fell to thinking about universalism, and it struck me that one of the reasons I am so hot for particularism is that, in a certain sense, you can't really have universalism without particularism. At least, you can't have it in the same way.

Think about something that is truly universal, like some great speech from Shakespeare. I'll take my own favourite, Prospero's famous speech from The Tempest (which I first read in a bookshop aged seventeen, and instantly loved):

Our revels now are ended. These our actors, 
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, 
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, 
The solemn temples, the great globe itself, 
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve 
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, 
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff 
As dreams are made on, and our little life 
Is rounded with a sleep.

Art like this speaks to all of us, transcending all barriers and circumstances, going to the heart of the human condition itself. We seem to be gazing over a panorama of centuries as we meditate upon it. As Chesterton wrote, of a similarly universal author: "In everybody there is a certain thing that loves babies, that fears death, that likes sunlight: that thing enjoys Dickens. And everybody does not mean uneducated crowds; everybody means everybody.”

When we come such across great universal art-- or something that makes us more than usually aware of the universal human condition-- we feel as though we have emerged into some vast space, there is a sense of enlargement and of the sublime. I experience a similar feeling when I walk from Dublin's Westmoreland Street towards O'Connell Bridge, a great cross-roads full of milling crowds, where there are no longer buildings on either side of me and I am struck with a sense of space and scale and openness.

Well, my point is that, in order to fully experience such a sense of the sublime in the universal, we have to have the particular to contrast with it. Where would be the praise in saying that an author speaks to readers of every culture, if there is no difference between cultures anyway?

I call myself an anti-globalist, but I'm not really. I accept that the earth is a globe (although I admire the heroism of Flat Earthers). I enjoy air travel. I like the internet.

More relevantly, perhaps, I accept that the our common humanity far outweighs our national, ethnic, sexual, and other differences. We are all much more alike than we are different. Human solidarity is essential.

When it comes to art and literature, I've always preferred literature that addresses universal themes. I'm not much interested in a book or a poem that is full of intellectual parlour games for academics or bookish people. I've always detested dialect poetry, although this might be irrational or an overreaction.

And, of course, I am a member of the universal Catholic church, whose mandate from our Lord is to make disciples of all nations.

The reason I call myself an anti-globalist is because:

1) Although I believe in a universal human nature, one dimension of this universal human nature (in my view) is a profound desire to belong to something more specific than the human race. In fact, I think we have a series of such belongings. We want to belong to a family; we want to belong to a circle of friends, allies, and colleagues; we want to belong to a people. Particularism is universal.

2) The extent of globalization in our modern world horrifies me. I fear that the universal is gobbling up the particular, that the international is gobbling up the national, that the national is gobbling up the regional, and so forth. I think life should be a balance of the particular and the universal, and the balance has swung far too much in the direction of the universal. For instance, it is estimated that a language dies every three months, and forty-six per cent are in danger of dying. That, to me, is horrifying. And language death is only one aspect of homogenization.

Another point. I have used the term 'particularist' in this post. I usually call myself a nationalist. This is partly out of tradition, partly to defy the people who are trying to make 'nationalist' a dirty word, and partly because I do believe in the ethno-nationalist ideal. However, my nationalism is just one manifestation of my particularism. I accept the arguments that the the nation is a historically and culturally contingent phenomenon. African nations, for instance, often seem to be a conglomeration of a huge amount of different ethnicities and people.

The whole phenomenon of nations may become obsolete, sooner or later. I hope not, but it might. In that case I hope ethinc and national traditions survive in some form, as peoples rather than as polities. And even if ethnic differences die out, I hope and believe humanity will continue to express their urge towards particularism in some form or other. (One of the reasons I like Star Trek is because ethnic differences and  traditions are shown as surviving into the twenty-fourth century!)

Incidentally, the phrase "particularism is universal" gets no hits on an internet search. Perhaps I should trademark it!


  1. It was always good to know that you can still be Scottish in the 24th century. People don't talk about globalization these days the way they did ten or fifteen years ago, when (mostly young) people seemed to be forever holding rallies, protesting (against Kentucky Fried chicken for example) and rushing off to McDonalds for lunch after(while lower paid migrant workers cleaned up the mess). But, yes, what you say is alarming. Speaking of sport and nationalism,I only recently became aware of the young group Seo Linn who seem to do a lot to promote Gaelic among young people and apparently reconstructed Óro Sé do Bheatha into a football anthem. Good for them. I only watched the original version of the song, it's never been a favourite but they certainly breathe life into it [Toto's Africa in Gaelic available on their website, left me a bit cold. Some globalizing at least should be left undone]

    1. I never liked Óró Sé do Bheatha Bhaile either. That's funny, we both dislike it.

      As for doing "cute" Irish versions of pop songs, I hate that practice. It's so derivative.

    2. Well there's a multitude of Irish(/Scottish) stuff to choose from without having to do that..... also,I have to confess to always being fond of AFRICA as it was