Capturing the Spirit of Our Times (Winter 2013 Trust Magazine)

Author: David Brooks


03/08/2013 - In the 18th century, the Italian thinker Giambattista Vico came up with what at the time was a novel insight, that each age has its own climate of opinion, its own web of symbols, its own assumptions. There is no final, true climate of opinion, Vico asserted. Instead, each has strengths and weaknesses. The Homeric Greeks may appall us with their brutality, but they also impress us with their mental clarity. The medieval Christians may impress us with their piety but less so with their capacity for innovation.

What's needed, Vico thought, is imaginative insight, the ability to enter an alternative viewpoint and feel its contours, its contradictions, the different lenses the people within it rely upon to perceive reality.

Vico and people after him were intuiting, or just guessing. Today we have more scientific tools to measure people's values and disagreements. But to do that intelligently still requires imaginative insight and empathy—to ask the right questions, to group people into the right categories.

We are awash in political data these days, but there is no group I have relied upon as thoroughly as Andy Kohut and his team at the Pew Research Center to go beyond the horse race and measure the moral and cultural contours of our time. I've relied on Pew Research data to understand the typology of the American electorate, the exact nature of the values divide that feeds into political polarization; to measure  how Republican opinions have shifted and how Democratic views have, too.

If Vico were around today, he'd be working at the Pew Research Center, or at least be as addicted to its website as I am, because no other organization so reliably gets a grip on that essential but ineffable thing, the spirit of the times. 

David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times.

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