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This is a talk which changed direction in the course of preparation. I started with the intention of discussing how the phrase 'British values' is being used in the context of the present 'war against terrorism' and the perceived need to integrate people from a wide range of different cultural backgrounds into British society. But in the course of preparation it got tangled up in my mind with another project I'd had a few years ago but never properly pursued, inspired by my very superficial knowledge of German philosophy and in particular by reading the book written early in their careers by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology.(1)

 (1) Written 1845-6 but not published in their lifetime. Available at

The German Ideology was (like its predecessor The Holy Family (2)) an attempt to settle scores with their contemporaries, grouped together under the collective title 'The Young Hegelians'. They had all been raised under the enormous shadow cast by GWF Hegel. They had been formed by him but they were now in reaction against him. And what had struck me at the time was that, in their reaction, they seemed to be becoming, or trying to become, less 'German' and more 'English'. They wanted to shift from German 'idealism' to English 'empiricism'.(3) And I thought it might be interesting to write something under the title The English Ideology. 'The English Ideology' seemed a more elegant title than 'The British Ideology' but 'the British Ideology' may be more accurate given the importance of Scotland and in particular of the eighteenth century 'Scottish enlightenment'. Wales, protected by the language, seems to me to have had an existence of its own - something it is quite difficult for a non-Welsh speaker to penetrate but which I'm beginning to think might be interesting. But it's not what we're dealing with here.

(2)  Published in 1845. Available at

(3) This, from one of the targets of the polemic by Marx and Engels, might serve as a summary of the distinctively German ideology: 'German thought seeks, more than that of others, to reach the beginnings and fountain-heads of life, and sees no life until it sees it in cognition itself ... Only mind lives, its life is the true life. Then, just as in nature only the "eternal laws", the mind or reason of nature, are its true life. In man, as in nature, only the thought lives; everything else is dead! To this abstraction, to the life of generalities, or of that which is lifeless, the history of mind has come. God, who is spirit, alone lives. Nothing lives but the ghost.' Max Stirner: The Ego and Its Own, New York, Dover Publications, 1975 (original German publication 1845), p.86.

The 'English' or 'British' ideology would have two main characteristics - first that reality is to be found in the world as perceived by the senses. We are observers of a reality that is external to us and that is what we must study if we have a concern with looking for truth. That is where it is to be found. Second, that our concern for human wellbeing - our own and the wellbeing of other people - should be primarily a concern with material wellbeing, hence the importance of property, of ownership.

You may feel that those are very commonplace concerns, hardly unique to British culture, but what I am suggesting is characteristic of British culture is that they occupy the first place. And they occupy the first place in the minds of the philosophers, of the people most concerned with 'values'. Certainly throughout the world people have thought that the perceived world was real and should be studied, and people were concerned with material wellbeing and with property, but traditionally the most serious minds would place these concerns in the wider context of what might be called a 'spiritual quest'. What I am suggesting is that somewhere along the line this sense of a spiritual quest, of the struggle of the relative towards the absolute, got lost among the thinkers whom we regard as most typically 'British'. Of course I'm not suggesting that it disappeared altogether from British culture. I am an admirer of William Blake. But even if he couldn't have been anything other than English, he appears in the general context of British culture as a very eccentric figure. Then we might think of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But Coleridge was steeped in German philosophy. If Marx, Feuerbach or Max Stirner were Germans trying to be English, Coleridge could be said to have been an Englishman trying to be German.

I should stress that I'm not suggesting that British culture was 'atheist' in the sense of not believing in God, or not believing in a life after death. It might be more accurate to suggest that belief in God and in an after life were so much taken for granted that they had ceased to be problematical. The business of eternal life was in the hands of an all-powerful God, leaving humanity with very little to do. One might indeed suggest that the German philosophers - Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel - are less complacent about the existence of God and an after life. A problem that is essentially spiritual, not empirical, not 'practical', has become for them a matter of burning urgency. And similarly a concern with material problems - something the English philosophers could take for granted - was experienced by the Young Hegelians, most obviously by Marx and Engels, as a philosophical problem, something that had to be fought for. I would go so far as to suggest that the violence of Nietzsche was, at least in part, a case of the German mind reluctantly coming to terms with things the British mind already took for granted, notably the Will to Power as a fundamental motivating force in human affairs.