What makes a counterculture?

Galleon wreck on beach
Artwork courtesy Cesar Sampedro

I defined the two countercultures as “new, alternative, universalist, eternalist, anti-rational systems.” This page expands that definition, explaining the characteristics shared by the two. It also begins to contrast them with subculturalism—the following mode of meaningness.

Recall that the two countercultures are the monist “radical” 1960s-70s youth movement and the dualist “conservative” movement of the 1970s-80s. The next page explains how these relate to monism and dualism. It also explains why I call the “Moral Majority” conservative movement a counterculture—but that should start to become clear already in this page.

The discussion here is America-centric, because that’s what I know best. Much of it applies to other countries, but details differ.

New

After the nightmare of WWII, everyone was exhausted, and just wanted everything to go back to normal for a while. “Normal” would mean the systematic mode functioning smoothly; and the 1950s were dedicated to making that happen. But none of the problems of meaningness from the first half of the century had gone away. Beneath the veneer of normality, the cracks in the systems were still widening.

Both countercultures were motivated by disgust at the hypocrisy of the mainstream. The mainstream’s relatively smooth functioning was based on eternalistic pretending. In fact, mainstream society, culture, and self now failed to provide meaning. They had been rotted from within by nihilism, leaving a brittle shell of eternalistic forms that concealed fundamental corruption. Shell-shocked, these systems were going through the motions with a business-as-usual attitude, but without authentic commitment.

Both countercultures perceived a pervasive moral breakdown in the mainstream, caused by loss of meaning, although they disagreed about specific values.

Alternative

The countercultures considered tinkering around the edges inadequate. They proposed wholesale replacement of mainstream society, culture, and self with alternative systems. They defined themselves point-by-point in contrast with the mainstream; that opposition was the counter in counterculture.

In the 1970s, “alternative” was a synonym for “monist counterculture,” in fact. An “alternative bookstore” sold New Age books; an “alternative grocer” sold alfalfa sprouts and tofu. Both were organized as anarchist collectives. The dualist counterculture positioned itself as the alternative to a society whose institutions had been captured by degenerate liberalism. It particularly opposed decisions by the American Supreme Court such as Roe v. Wade (abortion), Engel v. Vitale (school prayer) and Bob Jones University (racial discrimination). Both countercultures used the rhetoric of romantic rebellion against illegitimate authority to motivate followers.

The subcultures, by contrast, were not interested in replacing the mainstream; they just wanted to be left alone to do their own thing. In fact, during most of the subcultural era, there was no mainstream. The many subcultures were different from each other, but they were not “alternative.”

Universalist

Universalism—the claim that what is right, is right for everyone, everywhere, eternally—is a key feature of the systematic mode. The countercultures retained it: both proposed universalist alternatives. The monist counterculture said that everyone should recycle, get over their sexual hangups, and expand their consciousness. The dualist counterculture said that everyone should go to church, save it for marriage, and pledge allegiance to the flag.

Universalism proved to be the countercultures’ undoing. It became apparent in the 1980s that neither counterculture could command a majority. People are unfixably diverse, and different people want all sorts of different social, cultural, and personal arrangements.

The subcultural mode abandoned universalism; that was its foremost difference from the countercultural mode.

Eternalist

Both countercultures tried to rescue systematic eternalism from creeping nihilism. Both had optimistic, positive visions, to make everything authentically meaningful—in contrast to the make-believe mainstream.

The subcultures, on the other hand, were often explicitly nihilist. Punk was the first subculture; the Sex Pistols’ “I am an antichrist / I am an anarchist / I don’t know what I want / But I know how to get it / I want to destroy the passerby” blew counterculturalism to bits.

Anti-rational

Both countercultures explicitly rejected rationality, which had been a foundation of the systematic mode. All possible rational bases for systems had been tried, and had failed. Rationality had shown that meaning was neither objective nor subjective, which was misunderstood as implying nihilism: that meaning did not exist at all. Rationality, counterculturalists thought, was probably to blame for all the Twentieth Century horrors: the World Wars, loss of Christian faith, rampant materialism, ecological devastation, abortion, and nuclear weapons.

New anti-rational religious movements organized meanings for both countercultures. The hippie counterculture ransacked history to find and revive monist spiritual systems. They adopted “Eastern religions,” plus vintage-1800 German Romantic Idealism, which was repackaged as “the New Age” to disguise its unsavory origins. The dualist counterculture replaced rationalized mainline Christianity with wacky fundamentalist, charismatic, and dispensationalist innovations.

On both sides, these new religions promoted supernatural practices and transformative inner experiences (“enlightenment” and “being born again”). They deemphasized or dropped codes of conduct and doctrine.

Subcultures, having set aside the failed quest for ultimacy and universality, did not need to take any particular position on rationality. With the countercultures having passed, there is room for the fluid mode to reclaim a relativized, non-foundational, pragmatic rationality.

Systems

The monist counterculture claimed to offer revolutionary new ideas, and both it and the dualist one made some genuine innovations, but neither broke away from the fundamental paradigm of systematicity. At their best, they offered new, different systems. However, it was systematicity itself that was fatally flawed; and so the countercultures sank.

Subculturalism stepped away from systematicity—or what many historians call “modernity.” The countercultural era was modernity’s last gasp, and the subcultures the first breath of postmodernity.

Comments

Seems a bit too neat

Brian Slesinsky's picture

This is starting to sound like a history of rationalization rather than a history of philosophy.

  • “After the nightmare of WWII, everyone was exhausted, and just wanted everything to go back to normal for a while.” Was this really everyone? Some groups gained in status during WWII. They didn’t want to hold onto those gains? Why would anyone in the black community believe in any of this (outside of church)?
  • Yes, in every conflict, religious and philosophical arguments are sometimes used as rationalization, but what about concrete problems? Young men afraid of being drafted, racism, and so on. These things make conflict personal. Putting philosophical issues ahead of bad things actually happening to people seems a bit off.
  • “All possible rational bases for systems had been tried, and had failed.” Maybe in philosophy departments, but I doubt anyone else really cared? Nobody else decides what to believe based on whether it has a rational basis.

Also, wacky religion (preachers going around telling people what they believe) has been around forever.

A history of rationalization

This is starting to sound like a history of rationalization rather than a history of philosophy.

I’m not sure what you mean by this (or by most of the rest of your comment, I’m afraid). I don’t know what “a history of rationalization” would be. And, this is not at all meant to be a history of philosophy.

Was this really everyone?

I would have hoped it was obvious that this is a figure of speech.

what about concrete problems?

Uh… what about them? (What are you objecting to, more specifically?)

“All possible rational bases for systems had been tried, and had failed.” Maybe in philosophy departments, but I doubt anyone else really cared? Nobody else decides what to believe based on whether it has a rational basis.

A few web pages back, I suggested that pre-WWI culture and society was organized top-down according to what the elite believed were rational bases. No one believes that anymore; but that rhetoric was still mainstream in the 1950s.

Both counter-cultures were explicitly anti-rational. They wouldn’t have had to be anti-rational if they weren’t reacting against supposed rationality. This was a big deal at the time.

This may be hard to understand for anyone under about 60, because we take for granted that most things aren’t rational. Post-1990, our world is non-rational (not either rational nor anti-rational). Except in pockets of STEM, no one knows or cares about rationality—as you point out.

what about concrete problems?

Brian Slesinsky's picture

what about concrete problems?
Uh… what about them? (What are you objecting to, more specifically?)

Mostly I’m just trying to say that history is complicated. Any theory that tries to explain all of history (as you seem to be attempting to do) is bound to leave out lots of stuff that’s just as important as what you choose to talk about.

But, I’m sure you know that.

All of history

Oh! I see. OK—I’m not trying to explain all of history, at all.

This page is part of a history of meaningness. It’s explicitly not a general theory of history (at a meta level) nor a general history (at an object level). It covers only one tiny aspect of history, and mostly only covers the past half century.

Its aim is only to provide enough background to understand where we are now, specifically in our relationship with meaningness.

Or, you could put it like this. How is it that several major recent American political movements refuse, as a matter of principle, to say what they are for? How is it that they could oppose each other vociferously, despite their explicit lack of concrete aims?

I chose to trace particular threads of history in order to answer questions like that.

I thought that the introductory pages for the history explained this clearly, but it seems not.

Can you (or anyone) recommend ways to make the nature of the project clearer?

Well, okay, not all of

Brian Slesinsky's picture

Well, okay, not all of history - that was an exaggeration. But still, it seems like you’re attempting to summarize a vast amount of history in support of a grand theory. I start to wonder what would count as evidence this theory is true? (or false?)

Not being a theorizing type, I’m not sure what to suggest. Maybe tell stories of particular situations where you think your theory is helpful?

Well, it is a chart that

Brian Slesinsky's picture

Well, it is a chart that attempts to explain everything, sort of. :-) It already has a disclaimer, so it doesn’t seem like another one will help.

The “theory of meaningness” really is a grand philosophical project, right? Might as well own up to that.

(I’ll confess I’m drawn to this sort of philosophy, even though I don’t take it entirely seriously.)

Themes, not theories

The “theory of meaningness” really is a grand philosophical project, right?

Ah, maybe this is the heart of the misunderstanding! There is no theory, and this is not a philosophical project. I think I’ve probably said that somewhere in passing, but there’s a couple of draft pages that cover just this point. I will move them up in the priority queue.

Philosophy is (mostly) systematic, and theories are systematic. This work is meta-systematic (like its subject matter), and therefore non-systematic.

So, it has themes, but not theories. Or, occasionally it might sprout theories of one sort or another, but they are incidental side-effects of the process. (Off hand, I can’t think of any theories, but there might be one somewhere in the book!)

Terminology

Brian Slesinsky's picture

Instead of “philosophy” maybe I should say “explanation” if you’d prefer. But it does seem like you’re attempting to explain something about the world in a non-rigorous but elaborate way, which I would normally call a philosophy. A philosophy of science, for example, comes from thinking about it is that we’re doing when we do science.

I guess my question is why a theory of meta-systems isn’t a system? It’s certainly not a formal system, but then again neither is religion or some of the other things you call systems. (At the very least, you’re saying that some things are systems, and others aren’t, which seems like a systemizing thing to do?)

There are a lot of different levels of mathematics but we still call them math.

Meta-systematicity

I guess my question is why a theory of meta-systems isn’t a system?

Yes, this seems to be the crux of the line of questioning!

I’m writing about this elsewhere—eventually, I hope, in depth. “A first lesson in meta-rationality” would probably be a good starting point—I wrote it particularly for computer science folks!

Universalism—the claim that

Bad Horse's picture

Universalism—the claim that what is right, is right for everyone, everywhere, eternally

I think the term means just the opposite as used by Unitarian Universalists.

Rationality, counterculturalists thought, was probably to blame for all the Twentieth Century horrors

This is where the answer lies to your recent question as to whether anybody still uses the term “Rationalism” in its ancient sense. The widespread hatred of science and rationality in 20th century art criticism and philosophy makes sense only under the assumption that the speakers are using the ancient definition of rationalism. People in the sciences use a modern definition; people in the humanities use the ancient definition; nobody ever realizes that they’re using different definitions. The scientists don’t realize it because they just assume that people in the humanities are stupid. People in the humanities don’t realize it because they aren’t aware there is any other definition of rationalism, as they usually don’t know anything about science after the 18th century.

(This development came about because people wanted, perhaps for racial reasons, to pretend that empirical science came from the ancient Greeks, rather than from Africa and Asia Minor. This led Renaissance humanities, and all the humanities thereafter, to study the ancient Greeks from Greece, but not the ones from Egypt or Asia Minor, while imagining they were getting a complete education.)

I don’t have the memory to call forth quotes or citations, but right now I’m reading Hegel’s lectures on aesthetics; here’s a quote in front of me: “In its content, science is occupied with what is inherently necessary… For the very word ‘nature’ already gives us the idea of necessity and conformity to law, and so of a state of affairs which, it can be hope, is nearer to scientific treatment and susceptible of it.”

This re-iterates the claim, which may have been true when Hegel said this in 1827, but is now a gross ignorance, that science deals only in necessities (statements about necessary causality, X => Y where X always implies Y). I remember many such assertions in Lawrence Brown’s 1963 book /The Might of the West/, which I read immediately previously.

“Science” could be said to be a set of methodologies developed specifically to avoid getting trapped by that sort of nonsense. Necessary causality is how Rationalism functions, not science. Science deals with the extraction of information from observations; information is always probabilistic, and claims of certainty or necessity are literally impossible in scientific thought.

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This page is in the section Countercultures: modernity’s last gasp,
      which is in How meaning fell apart,
      which is in Meaningness and Time: past, present, future.

The next page in this section is Hippies and Evangelicals: monist and dualist countercultures.

This page’s topics are Countercultures, Eternalism, and History of ideas.

General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book (in progress), plus a “metablog” that comments on it. The book begins with an appetizer. Alternatively, you might like to look at its table of contents, or some other starting points. Classification of pages by topics supplements the book and metablog structures. Terms with dotted underlining (example: meaningness) show a definition if you click on them. Pages marked with ⚒ are still under construction. Copyright ©2010–2020 David Chapman. Some links are part of Amazon Affiliate Program.