Simon realised he could make a career in philosophy when he spent two hours successfully untangling the twisted strings of a stunt kite. Wittgenstein says that 'philosophy unties knots in our thinking; hence its results must be simple, but philosophizing has to be as complicated as the knots it unties'. Simon has a BPhil and a DPhil in Philosophy from Oxford University and has been exploring knots for a living since 1994. He is still not clear whether philosophy is a complicated education for grown-ups or just a simple occupation for grown-ups who never made it beyond childhood.
Investigating European Identities: As far as I can see there are only four basic routes into the question of "European identity". The first and second conceive Europe in terms of its ends: on the one hand, in terms of geographical limits, and on the other, in terms of teleological ends (terminus and telos). The third looks in the other direction and affirms a genealogical conception, identifying Europe in terms not of its limits or ends but in terms of its origins. Genealogy seeks to identify something like a heritage that emerges from certain historical roots. My favourite example of this is Levinas's (apparently) simple but deeply problematic slogan 'Europe is the Bible and the Greeks'. In my view, it is important to see that the idea of a European genealogy is really always the idea of a mono-genealogy, and it is so even when it is acknowledged to be a heritage of more than one heritage. Forming what is conceived as a continuous chain of history, the image is of something like a "golden thread" that runs unbroken from the present day of modern Europe to a distant historical past. Historians can be more or less one dimensional, but the historians business is always to chart the course of modern Europe by tracing the golden thread which has brought us where we are today.
Each of these three approaches has something in them, but I am attracted to a fourth conception which is set against all three: a conception which denies that there is anything that we can simply call "Europe as such" or "Europe in general" at all. What we are given to understand as what is distinctively or specifically "European" belongs to various, related and overlapping (haunting) movements of conceptual idealization (the becoming-intelligible of the name "Europe") which are strictly inseparable from the becoming-European of a world.
It is in the effort to engage in an analysis of these world-forming movements that what I want to call a phenomenological approach to Europe has taken shape for me. To illustrate by what I mean by the European world here, consider the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. The Museum was founded in 1884 when General Pitt Rivers, an influential figure in the development of archaeology and evolutionary anthropology, gave his collection to the University of Oxford. The General's founding gift contained more than 18,000 objects but there are now over half a million. Many were donated by early anthropologists and explorers. In beautiful Victorian display cases one can peruse artefacts, both baffling and everyday, and the original small handwritten labels provide the visitor with a minimal context. But these labels are less significant for me than the rather larger labels often attached to the cases themselves, which identify the part of the world the items are from. For example, Pottery - Africa, Pottery - Asia, Pottery - Europe. What struck me on my last visit is that the Museum itself could be labelled too, and labelled: Museum - Europe. However, in this instance the label does not function only as the name of the place in the world where an artefact (a building) is from but also the site of an interpretation of the world, a non-empirical site, a structure and an articulation of a movement of understanding and feeling of what has come to call itself (to be) "Europe", the home of what has come to call itself (to be) "European humanity". And, the task of a phenomenology of Europe would be the analytic of this non-empirical site, the localization of the "here I am" of every European today.
The question of European identity is not, of course, a new question, and it belongs to a movement of self-elaboration that has been, in certain of its dimensions, as stubbornly sedimented as it is elsewhere fluid and shifting. We might think here especially about the for so long unquestioned (though, again, always historically understood) distinction between the barbarian and the civilized. But in our time that distinction, and the ethnocentrism and anti-ethnocentrism that has accumulated around it, is no longer so matter of course at all. Indeed, this distinction belongs to an epochal self-understanding which seems to be approaching what is really its own exhaustion. In view of a slow movement whose necessity is hardly perceptible we are witnessing today something a long time coming: nothing less than a new mutation in the history of the European world.
The mutation in the movement of the history of this world is often conceived in terms of a general Enlightenment trajectory: as the threshold of secularist atheism. That conception, it seems to me, is a very thin response to what Nietzsche regarded as the greatest European event of recent times, what he called the death of God, and in my view what we are witnessing is better conceived as a movement within a fundamentally Christian epoch, indeed as the deconstruction of Christian secularist monoculture, a movement which has brought us today into a form of democratic pluralism.
I am not suggesting with this that we are (again) approaching an end of history. On the contrary, we are learning to see ourselves within a world-historical mutation that is or can only be a kind of preface to who knows what that remains to come. As witnesses to what Emmanuel Levinas has called 'the end of a certain Europe' and its hopeless 'hope of instituting charity in the guise of a regime', we know today that the dream of "European civilisation" as heralding an end of history – the "good news" that we are finally near to achieving a form of social life that would represent the full emancipation of homo humanus from its rootedness in homo barbarus – that dream is over. In the 1930's, Freud already suspected that the theodicial messianism of both 'the wildest revolutionaries' and 'the most virtuous believers', the promise of a better world to come that would offer 'consolation' for present evils, should not to be answered by a messianism with a different content, or indeed with any content at all. If that was clear enough then it is overwhelmingly obvious today.
On the Old World terrain of post-War Europe there is a growing sense that European political responsibility is radically incompatible with the globalizing adventure that engaged in the violent colonization of every other. However, this is an uneven development. There is no doubt that this politics still belongs to the movement of the death of God. Europe today consistently welcomes and encourages the world-wide proliferation, both in national and increasingly in international contexts, of democratic secular formations. At worst it does so because it remains in (or as) a state of denial, desperately wishing the rest of the world would either go away or grow up and become Christians, or at least Christian atheists (rational humanists). But at best it does so not in order to seek to establish a world-wide monoculture in the image of Christian European scientific modernity, but to re-place this Old Europe with a democratic culture that can reckon with the challenges of increasingly global, increasingly virtual and increasingly multiple modernities. And this is not merely a matter of external or "international relations". Although, again, it may be extremely uneven, European states and their new European Union are coming to see that in this old cultivated place it is our duty today not only integrate but also to respect the otherness of every other who arrives – whether they arrive at birth or not. At their worst these states and their European Union are still fortresses that are closed in upon themselves and their petty nationalisms. But at their best they are striving to make Europe a mobile home fit for an astonishingly diverse, multi-faith and multi-cultural cosmopolitan society.
In this respect at least Old Europe is breaking out of itself, breaking beyond what Freud could possibly foresee or imagine less than 100 years ago, breaking out of the strict and authoritarian conformism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and into a multi-cultural context that is striving, in our time, to embrace both in law and in society, an open and democractic pluralism. And yet, to cite Freud once more, 'who can foresee with what success and with what result?'