Of the world


Some scientists tell the story that we are all made of matter that has existed since the beginning of the universe, and which will remain after we have gone. We are literally of the world, we are the dust of the earth and we breathe in the dust of those who have been and those yet to be. This is a frightening, as well as being a rather sentimental, idea. But whether it be true or mere speculation, it carries with it an important lesson. This is that we are all, to some extent to another, fixed. We are not just here now, but we always have been. We are part of a whole, something much bigger than ourselves.

I do not know whether what the scientists tell us is true, and I doubt that they really know either. But it is a nice idea – that we are not just in the world but are the world – and it is one that I wish to take up, to strip from it this veneer of scientific speculation and return it to the field of metaphysics where it properly belongs. We are made out of the stuff of the world. We are one with the world and not against it. We are not separated entities, or differentiated subjects, who can use the world as object. We are made up and remain of the dust of the world.

One of the defining characteristics of modernity is the belief that we are subjects distinct from the world. We are, according to Descartes, thinking subjects who are able to look outwards onto the world. We exist, as it were, in distinction to the external world beyond us. This separation is crucial for understanding modernity and its motive force, namely, the idea of progress. We exist to further ourselves, to progress and to achieve (substantially, if not entirely) human perfection. Human beings are perfectible – that is why we believe in the material basis of science – and they can attain this through their use of reason to exploit the objective world. The world has particular attributes that we can recognise, catalogue, and then exploit for our own purposes. The world is made up of discrete pieces that we see as objects available for our pleasure.

But this separation of ourselves from the world is a dangerous one. It forces us to look forwards and only forwards. We are focused on progress towards perfectibility and so we need not look backwards. We take for granted what we have now and use it to reach ever further into the future in the belief that this will make us happier, healthier or better. But the act of looking only forwards means that we deliberately limit our vision. There are things that we refuse to look at and which in time we may forget about entirely. Those things behind us do not matter, and the fact that we cannot see them proves this. So we insist on progressing forwards, towards what we are sure is a better place.

But this reaching out, this stretching to attain what we feel is only just out of reach, might lead us to over-balance. We are so concerned with what is ahead of us that we forget what we are balancing on. We take for granted all those traditions, institutions, relationships that we need in order to stand where we are and reach out. We are so focused on the future we forget how much we depend on the past. We ignore that we are only standing where we are now because of what has gone before us and what has been expended in maintaining us.

The desire for progress is exploitative. It uses up what is around us and, in taking for granted our past; it uses up our inheritance without regard for the consequences. But as we are convinced we are always just on the threshold of some better future why worry about the current cost? Whatever we sacrifice now can be more than made up when we have achieved our potential. After all, we must speculate to accumulate.

The problem, and hence the danger, is that progress, and the transgression it necessitates, is not temporary. It is not a short transition from one stable point to another. Instead progress becomes an end in itself. The whole purpose of modernity is the journey: progress is, in reality, nothing but flux and transgression. There is no agreed end point, no accepted notion of what human perfection would be, but merely a desire to be better, to reach the next step. But this step is merely the next point of departure.

What progress ignores is the importance of harmony, whether it be within ourselves, between ourselves, or between the world and ourselves. Progress stresses the separation, the apartness, of ourselves from the world. However, to recognise the need for harmony challenges the rush for progress. It makes us question the cost of our action, that what we do might pull and tear at our connections with others in the world. It forces us to look at what we are using, what we are stepping on and exploiting to achieve our pleasures.

Harmony is a concern for balance. It is where we recognise that we cannot move without it affecting everyone and everything else. We are connected and our actions are consequential. What we do impinges on others and so we should factor this into our calculations. Indeed, it makes us question the very nature of our calculations: what are we seeking; why do we do it; what might we achieve, and what happens if we do not achieve it? If we move so does everything else and do we know what the consequences will be?

Of course, we might weigh up these consequences and conclude that the benefits outweigh the costs. We might consider that a change in the balance is a price worth paying for what we hope to achieve through progress. But this would not be to properly understand what we mean by harmony. It is not merely a matter of being aware and so perhaps taking notice of the consequences of our actions. Harmony is where we question the actual process of calculation. What matters is the balance itself and not what this means to any one part of the whole. If we are part of the world then what matters is the world as a whole and not just ourselves as part of it. In other words, harmony is an end in itself.

Harmony and balance imply that we stay in place. We do not seek to move, to progress or improve on what we now inhabit. Harmony is a concern for permanence, for settlement, for what we might call dwelling.

To focus on dwelling allows us to focus our actions in their fullness, on their complete effect and on all the levels implicated in that activity from the very idea of human settlement to our most private inner thoughts.  Dwelling focuses on our relations at all levels, with loved ones, friends, neighbours, strangers, and with the world itself. Martin Heidegger, in his essay ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’ equates dwelling with building: for humans to dwell means they build structures for themselves. In turn, he defines building, through its etymological roots in Old English and German, as related to the verb ‘to remain’ or ‘to stay in place’.  Dwelling as building is thus more than just mere shelter, but is a reference to the settlement by human beings on the earth.  Indeed for Heidegger, dwelling is humanity’s ‘being on the earth’.

Heidegger sees dwelling as human settlement in general: it is the house, the village, the town, the city and the nation, but it is also humanity taking root in the soil and recognising our part in the world. We are rooted, embedded and not able to fly free of the world seeking our interests independent of it.

Dwelling then is about balance. It is the activity that creates, maintains and sustains the permanent human presence in the world. Dwelling is about the material and non-material relations that create the capacity for human continuity. Dwelling deals with the human presence it all its complexity, in that it allows us to talk about the universal and the subjectively private: human settlement and my home.

To dwell means to live on the earth. It is to be in place. We are at home in the world. We have a place of rest and a place that makes us. Dwelling is what we do: it is human settlement in the most general sense. To dwell is to be present in the world. We show our presence through the domestication and taming of nature, and so become tamed ourselves. We dwell through the creation of permanent social and political structures and through the private space we make for ourselves. When we dwell we mark our place in the world and so are be marked ourselves as worldly creatures.

Dwelling is to be in the world and to be at one with the world.  Dwelling manifests our need for permanence, stability and stasis, and our wish for things to remain as they are. Dwelling is what we do as part of the world and in doing so we become one with the world. It is where ordinary quotidian habits link to mystery, where we join with something much larger than ourselves. Dwelling shows us that the ordinary and the mysterious are not distinct but are one and the same: the mundane habits of our existence are where we make use of the world and inhabit it with meaning. In doing so, we become a mere part of the world. The world does not require us to understand it.

Dwelling is our inhabitation in the world in all its fullness. We are all one with the world; we are of the world and it is in us, and as such we act the world out and the world acts through us. How we act is determined by the world and we are not distinct from it. There is no sense of humanity being against or beside the world. Humanity is manifested as a mere part of the world. This does not, however, suggest any simple determinism or that there is any prefigured pattern. We have no necessary or preordained role in the world. Instead our actions carry with them a responsibility of involvement: how we act, the decisions we take individually and collectively, can affect how the world is. Without doubt we can change the world and make it into what it currently is not. But it still remains the world, and we are still part of it. The world is changed and we are changed with it. And with change we take a risk in our lack of understanding. We throw things out of balance.

We can see the world either as a process of change or as a point of acceptance: it can be transgression or accommodation, movement or stasis, harmony or displacement. To create change is to displace, to move ourselves away from where we currently are. It is where we reject the idea of keeping ourselves in place and seek to keep moving. We forget we dwell and seek instead to transgress. We see a virtue in movement and in change and we repudiate the static point. Yet when we keep moving, when we stay in transit, we can never be sure of where we are.

But to dwell is to recognise that we are points of being rather than processes of movement. We are fixed points of the world existing within a web of relations. We are rooted and connected through well-worn ruts of meaning. And we seek to maintain these and persist with them and we do so precisely because they keep us fixed. We do not wish to be pulled away from our place, to be uprooted or to be taken out of those ruts we know so well. If we are uprooted then we become displaced and become disoriented and our connections with others become strained. So we do not seek to break new ground, but instead we relish the anchor, the foundation, the solidity of the known; we know our place and the meanings that this exerts on us are palpable and help to ground us.

This notion of being in place is threatened by modernity and the chase for progress. As we have seen, progress insists that we set ourselves apart from the world. We seek to improve our condition and we refuse to accept what have now as anything other than transient and contingent. Nothing is therefore beyond transgression. We believe in our own perfectibility and so cannot accept the boundaries of our current life. We always want better and believe that its achievement is possible. The desire – the need – for transgression inherent in modernity prevents stability. There is no one place, but a series of temporary holdouts from where we plan our next move. What we lose in this desire for transgression is our connection with the world. We forget the closeness, the openness we have to the world and which it has for us. Our loss is one of balance, the ability to remain level with what is around us.

We should see transgression as the very opposite of stability. Modernity relishes flux and this serves to separate us from the world. We can agree here with René Guénon, who argues that modernity has severed our traditional connection with the world. Hence instead of progress and evolution – both peculiar to Western modernity – he sees our predicament as one of inversion, of a decline from a once enlightened golden age. The idea of progress is, for Guénon, a western aberration: the idea that we can improve, that we are capable of moving towards a better society planned and made by ourselves, is an absurdity. We are by no means capable of perfectibility and our attempts to achieve it are both naïve and hubristic.

Progress and modernity depends on the assumption that we can control the world, and that it is there for us. It is where we assert a distinction between the world and humanity, and that the world is a resource for us to exploit and use as we see fit. But this is disharmonious and destructive: it means we cannot maintain the world as it is, or as it wishes itself to be. Instead we try to make the world in our own image. We see it as ours and as a distinct object separate from us. We feel we know it, that we own it and so can use it as a resource. To be striving for change is therefore to see ourselves outside or beyond the world. We tear ourselves from the world. We uproot ourselves and breach our connection with the world in the belief that we can remake ourselves and the world as we please and relocate ourselves to a time and place of our own choosing. In doing so we become footloose and forgetful, and lose what makes us what we are. We empty ourselves out; we become hollow shells. We become separated, displaced and anonymous to the world. We become subjects capable of transformation within an imagining of transgression. And in our imagining, in our dreams of a perfect world, we become forgetful of dwelling. In our forgetfulness we seek to mould the world in the image of our dreams of perfection. And it appears that there is little that can stop us. In the moment that is now, the time we have before us, we come to see that we can remake the world. We believe that we have the power to transform what is around us.

But this leads only to destruction. We cannot sustain what we make and remake and this is because we are not capable of understanding our actions. So what we create is disharmony. We cannot remould the world and leave it harmonious. We can only remould the world on the presumption that we are distinct from it, that we are separated from it; that we are above and beyond the world and that it is ours to control and to make and remake according to our own will.

But we are not distinct from the world: we are mere parts of it. So when we tinker with the world we tinker with ourselves. We think we are in control of what we are doing and that we will stay in control. But, in reality, we cannot be trusted and we are not in any way acting responsibly. We have power but lack authority. We cannot justify what we do in any way that goes beyond ourselves, and this is because we do not properly know either the world or ourselves. The only justification we can find is that we have, at this moment, the power to hand; that, in this moment, we see ourselves as capable of acting. But what we seek to alter is not ours to change. Others have bequeathed to us what we now have, and we are beholden to those who will follow us to hold what we have in trust for them. But also we cannot alter the world without altering ourselves. And as we are a mere part of the world, and not beyond the world, we cannot properly control that change. If we alter what we are dependent upon then we change ourselves, and we will do so in a manner that we cannot properly predict.

What allows us to maintain our hubris is the fact that, being part of the world, we are well supported. We can live well because of the fecundity, diversity and resilience of what is around us. But this is not infinite and we cannot ignore our connections indefinitely. We cannot act indefinitely without the world responding. And the world will respond because of its implacability. It cannot respect our separateness. The world does not know us as things distinct from itself. And so it is impartial in its responsiveness. The world’s response to our actions depends on its nature as world and not on the power we lay claim to hold, no matter how great that power might appear to be to us. The world has its limits and once they are reached the world responds implacably. This means the response will be unyielding and beyond our capabilities to control or understand. We need the world to sustain us and once we separate ourselves from it we lose the connection that absorbs us. Standing out alone makes us vulnerable to the world in its implacability.

We can start to remedy this when we remember how to dwell as part of the world. We then recall that we are located beings. We realise we are not beyond the world able to look at it in its totality. We cannot transcend it. Or rather, we accept that we cannot do this without losing our hold on the world, without losing our connection to it as world-giving, and without the loss of much of ourselves as part of the world. What we must do, therefore, is to regain the sense of ourselves as being within the world. We must re-accommodate ourselves as part of the world and accept our part in its wholeness. We must reject transgression and the desire for separation from the world. If our attempts at distinction and control are destructive – of the world and ourselves – then we must accept our limits. However, in doing so, we can recognise that our limits are the world itself, and so it is our very inhabitation that provides us with these limits.




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The first review!

Mark Sedgwick at the Traditionalist blog has already reviewed The Antimodern Condition, which is not bad going as the book isn’t out until next week. Mark’s comments, which are very kind, can be found at:


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The problem of radicalism (part 1)

One of the difficult issues for a conservative to deal with is that of radicalism: just what actions can we take to further our cause? If we take seriously the idea that the role of the conservative is actually to conserve, to prevent change and to keep things as they are, then what actions are legitimate in trying to achieve this? Michael Oakeshott, in his essay ‘On Being Conservative’, offers one of the best and most succinct accounts of the conservative disposition:

“To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbound, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. Familiar relationships and loyalties will be preferred to the allure of the more profitable attachments; to acquire and to enlarge will be less important than to keep, to cultivate and to enjoy; the grief of loss will be more acute than the excitement of novelty and promise.” (1991, pp. 408-9)

This, for me, sums up also what it means to be antimodern, particularly the readiness to accept what is around us, to be content with enough rather than aspiring for everything.

But Oakeshott’s view of the conservative disposition is a quiet, even a passive, position. He does not expect us to have to fight for anything. We have much of what we want readily to hand and he seems to assume that we find much of what is around us congenial and to our liking: we can quite readily accept the world as it is.

But for some this is simply not the case. The state of the world makes them angry and they wish to alter the current arrangements. Perhaps they want to put things back how they once were (or they are imagined to be). This is a perfectly understandable position, but how can we turn this desire into action? And just what cations are legitimate for a conservative to take? For the left it is relatively simple: they is a direct connection between liberalism and socialism and the idea of progress and human perfectibility. This legitimises change and opens up the possibility for radical action. But can a conservative take the same route? If, following Oakeshott, we reject utopian notions, can we use the same strategies as the left? Might strident actions not have unforeseen and unintended consequences which materially affect our familiar world?

But if we reject radical action, where does this leaves us? Do we have to accept what we have and where we are and just put up with it? And if we end up saying that we really must avoid radical action what does say for the coherence of the antimodern worldview?

These are indeed difficult questions and accordingly I shall save trying to answer them for a time!



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What is the antimodern condition?

The antimodern condition is not a temporal condition: it is not against now. Instead it is a way of looking at the world and understanding our presence within it. In essence it is a statement against progress and the idea of human perfectibility. It is profoundly anti-utopian in that it rejects the idea that we should sacrifice the present for the future. We know that humans are not capable of perfection and that the attempt it not only bound to fail but dangerous. History tells us that the search for human perfectibility is both futile and highly dangerous. Moreover, we only have one life, and we have ends to meet in the present and so why should we sacrifice this for a hypothetical future?

What are more concrete are the traditions that our culture is based on. These have created the sense of familiarity that provides us with some comfort. They are social practices that have stood the test of time and help us to locate ourselves and to maintain a sense of home. We have inherited these traditions from our ancestors and we are charged with passing them on. In this way we link with the sacred and create a continuity of purpose based on what we share with those who are now dead and those yet unborn. These traditions ground us and provide us with a sense of home. They are what keep things close to us and they do this by imbuing our surroundings with meaning. It is in this way that we can understand what is around us.

The antimodern condition is where we accept things as they are. As such, we focus on the surface of things. We do not believe that there are any hidden structures below everyday reality. There are no necessary outcomes dictated by history. History has no purpose and there are no means by which human destiny can be determined. The antimodernist knows that any attempts to explain history and to reduce all knowledge to the material level are merely strategies to explain outcomes that do not fit preconceived theoretical assumptions. The world is as we see it and its nature is open to us.

We have no desire to repudiate the past or to destroy those institutions built by our ancestors. We acknowledge that they were building for us as well as for themselves. We reject any sense that we are more advanced that those who preceded us and that we are in any position to judge them. Rather we acknowledge that we are the mere repositories of their achievements and that we would be nothing without them. This leaves us with an epistemological modesty. We are where we are not because of ourselves but due to the labours of others. But we are also aware that there is much we do not know.

We expect to make no discoveries in morality and politics. We do not believe that we will find a new morality or a better means for governing society. Instead we believe that we can understand our actions through the template handed down to us by our ancestors and we can govern ourselves through established forms that have stood the test of time and proven their utility. We do not seek to avoid all change but see change as a necessary evil, which can only be sanctioned if it protects or corrects existing institutions. Longstanding institutions have a proven purpose and utility and this is to be preferred to any attempt to build new modes of governing based on abstract principles. This means that we should not feel the need to justify or explain the past. Rather we should understand that the past justifies and explains us.

We know that the past is fundamentally different from the future. The past is closed and settled while the future is open to possibility. We know that change will always be unpredictable and quite possibly uncontrollable. We are aware that it is easier to destroy than to create, and that once we start to dismantle longstanding institutions we cannot rebuild them, and that once we set up new institutions we also know that they will develop in ways that we could not possibly predict.

Society has no end point and no purpose other than to transmit knowledge and traditions from one generation to the next. It is this knowledge and traditions that allow individuals to flourish and prosper. But this is not because these individuals have license to remake or to discard what has been inherited. Rather they flourish because of what has been gifted to them, and so we should see each individual as the repository of a society’s knowledge and thus it is their duty to preserve this and pass it on. Our principle aim therefore should be to protect and support our own culture.

The key problem with modernity is that it prevents us from accepting what we are. Instead it forces us always to look forwards and never to accept where we are now. But the failure that naturally follows creates a sense of anxiety. We are told that we should aspire for change, but we tend to fall short and so judge ourselves, and others, harshly. Thus we can say that anxiety is the symbol of modernity. This anxiety manifests itself through egoism, where we put ourselves above others. We are right to recognise our own uniqueness, but we fail to recognise the unique of others. We place ourselves at the centre of things and so tend to use others as commodities. We do things because of what it supposedly says about us, and this arises out of the imperative to aspire.

The antimodern condition is where aspiration is replaced by complacency. Our sanguine acceptance of the world and our place in it allows us to find some comfort. We find solace in the banality of the ordinary and complacency helps us to assuage the implacability of the world. We can face the materiality of the world through our meaningful relationships with things. We find ourselves absorbed by a world of meaningful things and so we find can absorb these elements into our ordinary lives.

So, the very essence of the antimodern condition is acceptance. To be antimodern is to accept what we are and where we are. We know that we need fixed points to relate ourselves to the world. We put down roots and traverse well-worn ruts that keep us located. We depend on a sense of stability and permanence and through this we can be complacent within the world. Acceptance is indeed the opposite of aspiration. It is where we can accommodate others apart from our own needs. We are able to see the world as others do and come to terms with things as they are rather than as we would like them to be.

The rejection of aspiration means that we are able to know when we have enough and to appreciate what it means to have a sufficiency for ourselves. We know that we should limit ourselves and the principle reason for this self-constraint is that others too have needs. In limiting ourselves we allow others the freedom to act. We recognise that society depends on freedom, but that freedom depends on order. This sense of order comes from the constraints that are placed on each of us. The antimodern condition is accepting what we are and where we are.





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This is the website and blog for the book The Antimodern Condition written by Peter King and published by Ashgate on 4 February 2014. The aim of this site is to disseminate the key ideas form the book and hopefully to develop some comment and discussion on these issues.

If you wish to know what the book is about have a look in the section ‘What is the antimodern condition?” where I have posted a brief summary that picks out some of the main themes. Of course, this is only very brief so if you want to know more you’ll have to get the book: there is a link to the publisher’s website.

I hope you find the material here interesting and I look forward to your comments.


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