Etruscan Tomb of the Triclinium, Tarquinia, central Italy. c. 470 BCE.

Etruscan Tomb of the Triclinium, Tarquinia, central Italy. c. 470 BCE.


It’s a German word for the “spirit of the times.”  The historian Norman Stone gives an example of a moment when the Zeitgeist changed:

  • “Dangerfield had it right when he observed how, in the cartoons of Punch, there was a sudden leap out of the Victorian world in 1912.  Quite suddenly, different things became funny; and the figures in the cartoons were dressed differently.  It is probably not too much to claim that, before 1914, a new irrationalism had gained currency.”

What is it about the Zeitgeist?  It’s never quite feasible to pretend it’s not real or to dodge it completely – unless you’ve managed to carve out an existence on an uninhabited Pacific island or a solitary mountain peak.  It’s hard to define it and harder to explain it satisfactorily, but you know it when you see it.

In my childhood, one of the main halls of the Metropolitan Museum boasted a giant statue of an Etruscan Warrior.  His skin was the antique terra cotta red, his helmet ferociously convincing and he was not detected to be a forgery by any of the expert curators at the Met.  Not until, with the passing of the decades, even non-experts could see that he was born in a twentieth-century forger’s studio – not the Italy of the first millennium BCE.  The Zeitgeist had changed and what had been invisible heretofore was now obvious.

So the Zeitgeist does change.  Which means, we don’t want to get left behind when it changes.  Nor do we want to adhere to it so closely that we become narrowly provincial, a mere echo of the times we happen to live in today.

Attributed to the late nineteenth-century American philosopher Williams James is the view that the time for a novelist or thinker to die is when her identification with a past era becomes painfully clear.  That sounds like straight talk that pulls no punches about the Zeitgeist.  Go fight City Hall.  If you missed the train because it’s left the station, it’s time to die already!

But then there are the artists and thinkers whose influence starts to deepen after their deaths.  So how should we reckon with the Zeitgeist?  You can’t define it.  You can’t exactly explain how it got here.  You can’t pretend to rise above it.  (Everybody can see through that.)  Yet you’d be well advised not to put all your eggs in the Basket of the Zeitgeist.

Let’s try to get a fix on how It looks nowadays.  What are its components?  If you were staging it for anthropologists on another planet, what would you need to put in the script?  Hard to say.  But let’s give it a shot.

For one thing, there’s the claim that all truth is relative.  But if that’s always true, then at least one truth holds universally.  And if one truth is universal, why should we believe that’s the only universal truth?

Then we have the claim that all human relations are about Power – to dominate and oppress or be dominated and oppressed.  But if they’re all and only about that, then why get angry and indignant over it?  We don’t get mad at the rain when it pours.  The rain can’t help doing that.  Our anger says that we really think people can change if they will.  If our anger is to be believed, and we do have the freedom to choose, then we would profit from chances to study the widest range of options and see which ones might best explain and resolve the problems we face.

It’s curious, now that I canvass the Zeitgeist, to notice that things previously thought hardwired, like maleness and femaleness, are now being reconfigured as matters of choice.  On the one hand, we are believed to be confined to the oppressor/oppressed syndrome, whether we will or no, but on the other hand anatomy itself is not destiny any longer.  We can now redefine its significance at will.

The Zeitgeist is starting to look like a collection of inconsistencies piling up and up.  Should we try to overcome these contradictions by the Socratic method of dialectic: keep going in your search for true explanation till you can get one that’s free of contradiction and covers the evidence relevant to the topic you are trying to explain?  Hey, how about that?  It was good enough for Socrates!  Why not every woman?

No no, says the Zeitgeist!  The dialectical method and its purported search for truth is the mask worn by Dominant Power.  But wait a minute!  Didn’t we recently refute a claim like that by showing it to be self-contradictory?  We thought we did.  But now we see that our very refutation made use of the instrument of dialectic, whose power is just one more weapon in the dominant group’s repertoire.  Why should I believe that, just because you can out-argue me, you’re better than I am or more entitled to the perks?

Here I must respectfully step back from the Zeitgeist.  A scene comes to mind that I witnessed years ago on a New York subway.  A little girl shared a seat with her tall, drunken father.  A cop was kneeling beside her, trying to cheer her up.  I don’t know why.  Perhaps she had begun to cry.  Perhaps she had tried to escape to another car.  The cop had no authority to take her away from her father so he was trying to jolly her into a more accepting frame of mind – a childlike cheerfulness.  The look of sheer disdain and disgust on her little face was unforgettable.  The cop was trying to get her to believe a lie.

The scene told me that we human beings are born knowing the difference between truth and a lie.  Not in every case of course.  But that there is a great big difference – that we do know.

So what conclusion do I come to about our Zeitgeist?  I don’t seem to belong to it, yet I don’t feel out of step with the times.

There must be more to the times than I’ve said here.


About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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7 Responses to Zeitgeist

  1. Judy Dornstreich says:

    Dagnabbit Abigail and Johan, Are you defining Zeitgeist as “fad” which changes with the times, and sometimes manipulated by people in power or popularity to do that? But some people want to get to a sense of Reality, and hope, hope, hope that any current Zeitgeist is no more than yet more cultural conditioning which maybe can be plowed through and left behind. Sometimes I feel like there is no hope for me at all except getting on the mower, or pulling weeds. Which, dagnabbit again, at some point I’ll be too old to do.

    • Johan Herrenberg says:

      Dear Judy. No, ‘Zeitgeist’ isn’t a fad. A fad can be an expression of it. Zeitgeist is a collection – of assumptions, convictions, a particular ‘feel’ about life, reality, the world, certain fears and expectations. What I was trying to say is that beneath the dominant Zeitgeist there are past Zeitgeists and still-forming Zeitgeists. The present is a multiplicity of presents. An individual, too.

    • Johan Herrenberg says:

      Come to think of it: ‘climate of opinion’ also covers part of the term ‘Zeitgeist’.

    • Abigail says:

      Hi Judy! So far as I can see, fads and larger climates of opinions are the communicative current in which we live and move (but don’t have our entire being). So the challenge is similar to the one of relationships of any kind: to preserve our own identity or integrity yet not needlessly push others away.

  2. Johan Herrenberg says:

    The key, I think, is in the word ‘times’. In German and Dutch, in ‘Zeitgeist’ and ‘tijdgeest’, you have ‘time’, singular. In English, the word ‘times’, plural, is nearer the mark – every period is multiple periods/times. Some are submerged, i.e. ‘out of fashion’, others are dominant. Any submerged ‘narrative’ can rise up again. Why? That is the story of humanity.

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