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American Optimism Meets Slavic Fatalism: Reflections on Social Categories and Political Power

Abstract: A few years ago the webzine Central Europe Review published an interview Andrew Stroehlein (editor-in-chief at CER) made with Ivo Lukacovic, the “Czech Bill Gates”. Taking that interview as a sort of case study, we consider the way in which Stroehlein frames Lukacovic’s opinions as a case of “Central European fatalism”. This illustrates a well-known tendency to perceive persons as members of groups. Borrowing terminology from the philosopher Dan Dennett, I suggest that any fatalism in Central Europe or in countries whose populations include large numbers of Slavs is local rather than global. Once that adjustment is made, a further source of devaluing of Lukacovic’s thoughts comes from an implicit comparison with a package of ideas I label “American Optimism”. However, this assumed package of ideas also influences the interview in another direction: Lukacovic’s suggestion that the Internet will bring direct democracy is valued because it fits a stress on individuals that is part of American Optimism. The key question, however, is not (should not be) whether something is assumed, but whether the assumptions are correct or adequate. American Optimism is not especially in tune with reality. The second half of the paper considers how the broader phenomenon might be understood. We consider evidence from social psychology and speculation by scholars that the tendency for group affiliation is a biological adaptation.

Both societies, she points out, have a certain amount of resistance to nostalgia, Russia because of its “eternal fatalism” and the United States because of its “eternal optimism.” –Edward Rothstein, discussing Svetlana Boym’s The Future of Nostalgia in The New York Times (May 19, 2001)

Perhaps it’s just Slavic fatalism, but she believes that the Macedonian government may soon collapse . . . (Charles Schenk, “Remembering Macedonia”, March 31, 2001,

… young players should treat single-factor explanations of the present with care. Commentators frequently select one particular factor- such as the burdens of history, hostile cultural legacies, peasant fatalism. — Martin Krygier, “Traps for Young Players in Times of Transition”, East European Constitutional Review, Vol. 8, Fall 1999

Cabaret Balkan remains disjointed as film narrative, yet the strong male actors convey Slavic fatalism: each scene ends with a last great act of defiance.” – Don Hines, “Belgrade Blast”, from the September 9-15 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley’s Weekly Newspaper

“Politicians are like small boys. To me, they are like small boys.” “And do you think that they will ever change?” “I think they will have to die first,” he says, taking Central European fatalism to its logical conclusion.” –Stroehlein, 2000


In the above quotations we see writers in different contexts invoking the category of ‘fatalism’ – or, importantly, in the case of Krygier, warning us of the danger of over-using the category.1 Rothstein is quoting a Russian-born Harvard professor of Slavic and comparative literature who describes Russians as fatalistic. Schenk identifies himself as a journalist with more than 20 years of experience, who reported from Serbia in 1999 during the NATO bombing, and is a graduate of NYU. His website is part of the “liberalnet”. Krygier is a professor of law and chair of the editorial board of a journal dedicated to East Central Europe. Don Hines’s remark occurred in a film review that appeared in a weekly Californian newspaper. Stroehlein is editor-in-chief at Central Europe Review.

Though this is not a random survey, it does show us a collection of people in a variety of media who are invoking the category of fatalism in a Central or Eastern European context.2 Two writers who are not aiming at a specialist or professional audience (Schenk and Hines) freely invoke the ethnic category Slavic fatalism. The New York Times writer is careful to put “American optimism” and “Russian fatalism” in quotes. It may be significant that the non-specialist most readily uses such a phrase as “Slavic fatalism”; other writers may be sensitive to the charge of racism.

In any case, having introduced this category, allow me now to explain the point of this essay. In the pages that follow I wish to warn about the danger of employing this category, largely by way of an analysis of how it functioned in an interview Andrew Stroehlein conducted with Ivo Lukacovic, the “Czech Bill Gates”. My suggestion is that within the interview, Central European fatalism is tacitly being compared to another category, which I label “American Optimism.” Within the interview, “Central European fatalism” is implicitly considered inferior and unrealistic, but the standards of comparison are set by the tacit invocation of a set of assumptions that do not stand up to examination. I articulate those assumptions and ask the question whether they provide an accurate view of reality. I argue that they do not. Hence, the piece’s title: American Optimism (the tacit player in the interview) meets Slavic Fatalism… For the sake of emphasis I’ve modified Stroehlein’s “Central European” to “Slavic”. In the second part of the paper I look at explanations from Social Psychology and Evolutionary Psychology for the tendency to view individuals in terms of their group membership.

Before proceeding, a few methodological remarks might be in order. To start with, I am not claiming to perform an analysis of what “really” passed before the mind of one interviewer on a particular occasion. On the contrary, I shall analyze a particular text produced as a result of that interview. Just as with metaphors individual audiences may develop the author’s contribution in different ways, so even with an interview, different readers might provide different analyses. The image of a package of meaning coded by the author, a message whose exact content is decoded by an audience, is not a helpful one.3

A further complication is that Stroehlein has prepared the actual text with an audience in mind. An author might mainly intend to achieve certain effects (such as keeping the audience’s attention) by describing Lukacovic’s views as an example of “Central European fatalism”. Undoubtedly writers and speakers sometimes aim for effect over and above accuracy of description; but, there remain questions of accuracy and how the world is independently of the effects the text has on an audience.

It would not be especially interesting to dwell upon a small flaw in an interview with a businessman who happens to be from Central Europe, but there are more general lessons to be learned from our study. This specific case illustrates some general truths about human concepts and social categories; and we shall also be considering whether American optimism is, in the end, realistic.

For the sake of argument, let us suppose that there is such a thing as a variety of fatalism that can be found among Central Europeans or Slavs. My central thesis will be that whether that particular fatalism is rational or mistaken depends upon a careful assessment of what the real opportunities are in a given situation. I shall suggest that whatever fatalism there actually may be among Central Europeans or Slavs is local and restricted; Stroehlein’s interview, however, employs the category in an unrestricted way.

Central European Fatalism

A couple of years ago in Central Europe Review, in an interview with Ivo Lukacovic (“the Czech Bill Gates”), Andrew Stroehlein, spoke not of Slavic fatalism, but of Central European fatalism:

I.L.: . . . Politicians are like small boys. To me, they are like small boys.”

CER (A.S.): And do you think that will ever change?

“I think they will have to die first,” he says, taking Central European fatalism to its logical conclusion. (Stroehlein, 2000)

If we look at what Lukacovic is actually saying in context, he is talking about a particular group of living politicians, and what he is saying about them is not so obviously an implausible position as is fatalism – the view that human choice is meaningless. It is a quite specific limited version of fatalism: with this particular group of people, we cannot hope for anything more. In the same year, writing in the Czech political weekly Respekt, Martin Fendrych took a similar view when he argued that the Czech lustration laws should be continued on the grounds that people who used to be very good at suppressing public liberties won’t change overnight into people who respect liberty.4 (Fendrych, 2000, p.2) Neither Lukacovic’s nor Fendrych’s view should be labeled fatalism. To do so suggests they are making an unrealistically pessimistic assessment of the available opportunities, but it is far from obvious that the assessments in question are unrealistic.

Fatalism as a Position to Avoid

Anyway, what exactly is Fatalism – not merely in common parlance, but among people who spend their time thinking about such matters? Among professional philosophers fatalism is a position that (for the most part – I mention an exception below) nobody seriously defends or advocates. For most philosophers since Aristotle, it has been a sort of limiting position in discussions of free will and human agency: if you get to that conclusion, you’ve made a mistake and need to start over again. In brief, it is the view that human choices, decisions, deliberation, have no point – they don’t affect the outcome one way or another. Most have found this view implausible, but one exception is a group of British philosophers who practiced their fatalism during World War II. They convinced themselves that it didn’t matter whether they went to the bomb shelter or not, and offended commonsense by sitting above ground in their offices during the Blitz.5

Global versus Local Fatalism: Why Fatalism Isn’t Always a Bad Thing.

Thus far, the view of the professional philosopher doesn’t especially depart from that of commonsense6 – and it was to the rhetorical ambiance of commonsense that Stroehlein was implicitly appealing in his very casual reference to “Central European fatalism”. However, it is helpful to borrow (as I have already implicitly done above) the philosopher Dan Dennett’s distinction between global fatalism and local fatalism. (Dennett 1984) There are some things my choices affect and some things my choices cannot affect. If, during the winter, I slip on the ice, for however long it takes for me to regain my footing, fatalism is true of me: my will is not going to be causally efficacious.

Whatever fatalism there may be in Central Europe, it’s much more likely to be local than global. Czechs and Slovaks are, for example, very willing to devote time and energy to their country homes and gardens. That part of their lives is full of decisions and choices. If they separate that from the political sphere where (let us suppose) they believe choices are not so efficacious, that may be the product of a way of thinking with a history – a history of domination by larger nations – but it’s not for that reason to be dubbed irrational a priori. So, there’s little reason to imagine that Czech or Slovak society is filled with people who are fatalists on a global scale. And one suspects a similar pattern will be exhibited in Central Europe in general.

Fatalism about Politics?

In his interview with Lukacovic, Andrew Stroehlein was interested in the political sphere, not the domain of the personal. He wanted to know why Ivo Lukacovic didn’t get involved in politics. So, he was concerned with fatalism about politics, but what he seemed to suggest – because he appealed in an en passant way to the notion of Central European fatalism – was that Central Europeans, in general, are just generally fatalistic. I have just suggested that this is simply not so. But all of that was to the side of Stroehlein’s main question, viz., why didn’t the Czech Bill Gates enter politics?

At this point, I submit, Andrew Stroehlein’s own personal ideology stood there staring up at us, grinning, like a frog in the bottom of a mug. The interview strongly suggested that Czechs in general don’t participate or care about politics as much as they should. Here, in the person of Lukacovic, was an intelligent, young, visionary, and wealthy young Czech who refrained from participation. Why? We’ve been given an answer earlier: Central European Fatalism. In addition, we are told, there is a general Czech unwillingness to participate in politics.

Enter American Optimism

Why think the Czech Bill Gates should enter politics? Has Andrew Stroehlein given us any reason to think he should? A careful reading of the review, I submit, shows that Stroehlein produces no such reason, but assumes what I shall call American Optimism – and he expects the reader to share his own personal ideology. Which Ideology do I have in mind? Roughly, the idea seems to be that you or I, by entering politics, can change the world. That’s a rough statement, and I’ll say more about it below; but I think the reader can see what I have in mind. I intend to suggest that what’s being assumed is no more plausible than fatalism of the most universal and un-local sort. The idea that you or I can change the world if we enter politics is, for example, subject to the obvious complaint that it ignores the fact of existing power and class structures. But, then again, Lukacovic is not just anyone – he is one of the richest men in the Czech Republic. Perhaps he should enter politics because he is a sort of visionary, anticipating a day when the Internet will give us direct democracy.

I just spoke of Andrew Stroehlein’s personal ideology. I might have spoken in a more respectful way of assumptions he made when conducting the interview, or his standing assumptions. And there is nothing surprising or shameful in the fact that a person makes assumptions which, on a particular occasion, he or she doesn’t defend. One might say that the point of conversation is to make explicit assumptions that are implicit, and to raise them to the surface where they can be examined. I hope that this essay will be taken as a contribution to a broader conversation.7

Would Direct Democracy Be a Good Thing?

What is presented as positive in Lukacovic’s views, just as much as what is viewed as negative, is seen to be so in virtue of background assumptions, which I am labeling American Optimism. In keeping with the suggestion that we should examine what passes unnoticed and unquestioned, I propose, in this section, to briefly consider the notion of “direct democracy”. The interview suggests that one visionary idea of the Czech Bill Gates is that the Internet will facilitate direct democracy – direct electronic democracy. Given a background assumption of American Optimism, this idea will seem attractive, in large measure because the rough package of ideas I label “American Optimism” includes an unabashedly individualist conception of politics. Assuming this conception, giving each individual a direct means to influence the government cannot but be good.

Is it true that the Internet will give us more democracy?

An equally likely possibility, at first glance, is that there will be an arms race between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in which those who have more power and wish to maintain their advantage will use their superior resources to maintain the gap: they will manipulate the Internet in ways which maintain or improve their current dominance at the expense of those who lack power. Why should we suppose otherwise?

Consider, for example, the way in which survey results are influenced by the way in which the questions are written. Eric van Broekhuizen describes the “well-known” forbid/allow asymmetry:

…when respondents are asked whether something should be forbidden, about 50% may answer ‘yes, forbid’ – whereas an equivalent question phrased with the verb ‘to allow’ could well cause up to 75% of the respondents to answer ‘no, it should not be allowed’. (Erik van Broekhuizen 2000)
Van Broekhuizen takes the problem to be getting at what people really think – their “true attitudes”. But a person who wanted to manipulate a survey could use the phenomenon for his or her own purposes. The more general fact that how questions are asked influence the answers received represents an immediate difficulty for any notion of direct democracy via the Internet: politicians can formulate questions in such a way as to get the answers they want. One might also point out that most people probably are not aware of the forbid/allow asymmetry because most members of any society – no matter how developed or modern it may be – have neither the time nor the inclination to find out about such things. People who begin with more resources (money, time) begin with more access to experts and expert knowledge.8 Barring their endorsement of some such principle as Honderich’s (Honderich 1997) principle of equality – which says we should adopt policies which are designed to make the lives of the worse off better off – there is no reason to think that the more privileged will give any significant attention to the frustrated desires of the less privileged. The qualification is necessary because the better off may have to give some attention to the frustrated desires of the less well off – lest the less well off engage in actions that interfere with business as usual.

Of course, a deeper question is whether direct democracy would be a good thing at all. Richard Rorty (1990) has pointed out that the political philosophy of liberal democracy carried with it an altogether too-rosy picture of the capacity of ordinary people to attain the truth about matters political and ethical. If we don’t think that the ordinary person grasps some sort of package of a priori truths about how to behave in political and social settings, and thus is often or on the whole able to choose the best policy, then direct electronic democracy would not necessarily be a good thing.9 And if someone thinks otherwise, we are owed some account of where people are getting their social and political knowledge.10

On the general question of where, in general, people get their political ideas from, it is also useful to consider the work of the historian Bradley F. Abrams. (Abrams 1999) Based on a reading of newspapers – both weeklies and dailies – of the time, Abrams argues that people in Czechoslovakia at the time of the communist takeover, were, in general, simply unable to understand what was happening because the quality of public discussion (led by intellectuals) was too low.11 There was no proper attempt to understand the nature of democracy, for example, and such terms as democracy and socialism were used in an altogether too careless way.

What is especially interesting about Abrams’ work is the suggestion that people were actually prevented from understanding what was happening because of the low quality of discussion. Nothing about the Internet per se guarantees that it might not be subject to a similar process of distortion – and here we are not talking about people in power trying to keep their power, but about the role of the political elites, and how they can fail. It is also important that Abrams supposes that it was elites who were influencing the quality of public discussion: this was their failing. Though there is no evidence in his article that Abrams himself would make the extension, one might go on to suggest that the ability of elites to control or influence discussion will only be increased through the Internet. If the dominant ideas are coming from political elites, whose time is largely devoted to such matters, the Internet is just going to make it easier for them to spread their ideas among people with less leisure time.

To be sure, as Stroehlein tells us, he is writing a thesis about electronic media in the Czech Republic. No doubt he has much to say that did not appear in his interview.

Nonetheless, it’s worth pointing out the danger of a facile use of the notions of Fatalism – whether it be Slavic Fatalism or Central European Fatalism doesn’t seem to matter. It simply damages the quality of discussion. On the other hand, a little bit of (local) fatalism might be a good thing – a rational and justifiable position – because (as a matter of fact) there are situations and people who cannot be changed. And apart from questions about the nature of democracy, direct electronic democracy is not necessarily a coherent notion. First there is a psychological or epistemological problem. As originally formulated by such thinkers as Jefferson, democracy made implausible assumptions about what ordinary people knew and how they knew it. (Rorty’s point) A related point is that because the very ideas which get put on the Internet do not arise out of thin air, but are themselves, created and managed by elites – people who have time to write, read, and think – it is hard to see how the Internet will give more power to ordinary people who spend their lives putting food on the table.12 In defense of the older conception, one might suggest that ordinary people make wise choices if the conditions are right – if for example, they are not living in a repressive regime which limits the sort of information available to them. But it is only a few steps from there to point out that the value of the Internet depends upon the psychological and social, and cultural factors which impinge upon the behavior and thinking of ordinary citizens. And that means the Internet alone does not guarantee progress.

How is the Phenomenon to be Explained/Understood?13

The very act of classifying transforms perceptions of reality. Individuals become depersonalized, transmuted from unique persons to exemplars of named groups. This group reification is typically accompanied by a dual accentuation: a magnification of the differences between groups and an emphasis on homogeneity within a group. (Levine 1999)
When he classifies Lukacovic’s views as “Central European fatalism”, Stroehlein views Lukacovic less as a unique individual than as a member of a group. In this section I propose to consider possible explanations for this phenomenon, which is aptly described in the quotation above. This section will have three parts. First, we shall briefly consider what social psychologists tell us about our tendency to treat properties of situations as properties of persons. Secondly, I wish to briefly examine the suggestion that our tendency to see people in terms of ethnic categories represents an evolved capacity. And finally, we shall turn to social psychology and cross-cultural studies of subjective well being to attempt a tentative explanation of why North Americans might tend to see Central Europeans as fatalistic.

Before proceeding further, however, I would like to remind the reader of a familiar explanatory framework. In our daily life, we frequently use what has been variously referred to as folk psychology, commonsense psychology, and belief-desire psychology.14 We understand much of what people do by explaining a person’s behavior in the light of what they believed (the information available to them) and what they wanted. It is an endeavor that describes action in a way that makes sense of it, or shows it to be rational. Sue went to the refrigerator to get a glass of juice. She wanted juice, believed it was there, and went to the fridge because she thought that would be the best way to satisfy her desire. The basic structure has been richly developed by classical economic theory. I mention our folk psychological categories in order to point out that whatever the explanation is for the phenomenon at hand, it won’t be within the folk psychological framework.15

We might describe Stroehlein as the victim of an illusion: while presented with a specific individual, the interviewer neglected his individuality in favor of stock or stereotypical views about a group. It can almost seem to be deliberate and willful neglect of easily available information. That picture is too simple, however, because it assumes the availability of certain features or properties in the environment quite independently of any processing that is going on in the head of the perceiver. If one considers various human biases discussed in the social psychological literature, Stroehlein’s reaction to Lukacovic proves to be rather common and unsurprising. At any rate, below I shall introduce some results from social psychology in the hopes of producing such an effect in the reader.

In the first place, there is nothing more human and more cognitive than classifying objects according to categories, structuring one’s existence according to concepts. And that is a human capacity, which is rightly prized, and, within Western culture, it has been an object of intellectual curiosity since Ancient Greece. Any time we think of an object as a member of a kind or category or group, we have thoughts whose content exceeds the deliverances of our senses. And, to engage for a minute in a priori speculation, to perceive an object, yet not to think of it as a member of any kind, as having no properties whatsoever – not even to classify it as physical, i.e., occupying space – is difficult to imagine.16 So, to that extent, there’s nothing surprising if an interviewer regards an interviewee as a member of a kind. More striking is the particular kind; it is a social kind or an ethnic category. We shall consider some suggestions about the source of such categorization below, but before doing so I wish to suggest a parallel with the fundamental attribution error.

The Fundamental Attribution Error

There is a large body of research showing that North Americans and Europeans tend to misread features of a particular situation as if they showed us the personality of a person. In this section I propose to suggest that something analogous might lead to the positing of a national character.

In the classic experimental set-up subjects read essays on a particular theme (say capital punishment). They are told that the essay was written by a student who was not allowed to choose the position he or she was defending. Thus there is no reason to think that the essay expresses the author’s personal opinion. Yet, North Americans and Europeans tend to interpret the essay as an expression of the author’s beliefs. (See Zunda 1999, Chapter Nine)

The chart below (inspired by Harman 1998-1999) sets out an analogy between the fundamental attribution error and our tendency to view individuals as members of groups:



Fundamental Attribution Error

context-determined, situationally restricted action

positing of a character trait (College bursars are stingy.)

False Group Essence Attribution

historically, context-determined habits

positing of a national or regional character (Central Europeans are fatalists.)

Why do people make the Fundamental Attribution Error? One suggestion is that they have a false theory of personality, one that ignores situational factors. However, this is not a universal property of human beings, but rather is characteristic of European and American cultures. Asians do not tend to share this view of persons. (Choi and Nisbett 1998; a different interpretation of the data is found in Bem 1992.)

In the chart above I have suggested an analogy with the error in the interview we’ve been looking at. Lukacovic’s suspicion that certain politicians won’t change, as a bit of local fatalism, is like a context-determined action. Lukacovic may be exhibiting fatalism in this particular situation, but there is no reason to expect him to exhibit that trait in another situation.

My suggestion, then, is that we have one well-documented example of a sort of biased perception of situations, the tendency to misread features of a situation as features of a person. I am suggesting that Stroehlein has made an analogous error in positing a regional character. If we can underestimate situational factors when we conceptualize the behavior of individuals, it would not be surprising if we had a similar tendency in conceptualizing the behavior of individuals who belong to other cultures.

In the next section, I propose to consider biological approaches to social categorization. Whatever the final story of the nature of stereotypes and judgments about groups may be, part of the picture will involve considering the psychological mechanisms by which such judgments are formed and how they are a product of human evolutionary history.

A Biological Basis for Social Classification

Thus far, I seem to be suggesting that the tendency to see someone as a member of a group is a sort of cognitive illusion – like our hard-wired perception of the two lines as of equal length in the Müller-Lyer illusion. Levine 1999 points out that some scholars complain that social categories or ethnicity are not robustly real. I shall follow Levine and others (see Haslam 1998 for a quite explicit discussion) in supposing that the reality is rather more subtle.

A number of scholars have suggested that our tendency to see individuals in terms of group affiliations is connected to our human ability to cooperate and engage in collective action – and that ability can be beneficial. (See, esp. Jones 2000; but Cf. Sperber and Hinsfeld 1999, Haslam 1998, and Sykora, forthcoming) It is not that there is an objective property of group membership that is recognized by some psychological capacity. Rather, the human mind starts with an innate tendency to respond to certain properties, properties related to group membership, and there is no guarantee that the triggering properties are exactly the ones the device was designed (by evolution) to capture. Consider the following entry from the MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences:

Conceptual developments of this sort [The authors have just been describing Hirschfeld’s research involving race – M.L.] – – in which specific concepts are acquired in a singular fashion and contain information far beyond what experience affords- – are plausibly the output of a domain-specific disposition. Since the disappearance of the Neanderthals, humans are no longer divided into subspecies or races, and the very idea of “race” appeared only relatively recently in human history. So, although there may well exist an evolved domain-specific disposition that guides learning about social grouping, it is very unlikely that it would have evolved with the function of guiding learning about “race.” … however, many cultural artifacts meet a device’s input conditions despite the fact that they did not figure in the evolutionary environment that gave rise to the device. “Race” might well be a case in point. (Sperber and Hirschfeld, 1999)
The domain-specific disposition was not designed to recognize race, but the device has input conditions which could be satisfied by the social concept race; and it is sensitive to social groupings.

Plainly, we are not talking about Stroehlein’s acquisition of a concept. However, if we accept the suggestion of a domain-specific disposition that is sensitive to an individual’s social group, that would help us understand Stroehlein’s reaction to Ivo Lukacovic. The hypothesis is that a concept such as “Central European” or “Slavic” meets the condition of an evolved module that would make a person sensitive to group membership. The further suggestion is that there is information stored at that entry for that concept, beliefs about how in general such people are, including the notion that they tend to be fatalistic.

Plainly this is speculative. What evidence is there for the existence of such a module – a module sensitive to social groups? Hirschfeld (1988) draws upon developmental evidence: the paucity of stimulus (lack of sufficient explicit teaching in the environment of children), and the uniformity of development. The paragraph quoted above alludes to the paucity of stimulus argument.

Jones 2000 and Sykora (Forthcoming) also discuss evidence from the “minimal group paradigm”. Social psychologists have found that just the act of dividing people into groups, on the basis of what seem to be totally arbitrary criteria (e.g., in one recent study (VanBeselaere 2000), the colors green and red) led subjects to award more rewards to anonymous members of their group. Sykora (forthcoming) suggests that the very arbitrariness of the classification is evidence of a biological component. Jones (2000) suggests that a tendency to form group affiliations might have been helpful for early humans; though, thinking of ethnic tensions in modern societies, he is quick to add that this implies nothing about whether such capacities continue to be adaptive today.

Thus far, the suggestion of an evolved module for social groups might seem no explanation at all. Don’t we know already, quite independently of any evolutionary speculation, that people recognize the group affiliations of others? (Cf. Holcomb 2000) Surely we do, but perhaps the most interesting suggestion would be that the activation of the module would be in some sense automatic, or beyond the control of an individual’s conscious decisions.17

In the next section I would like to offer some more suggestions from which we might try to craft an explanation. I hope the reader will take the suggestions that follow as tentative and subject to further development.

How Stereotypes Might Arise

In a recent textbook, (Kunda 1999) the psychologist Ziva Kunda gives an imaginary example to illustrate the problems that many people have with detecting a relationship or covariation between two variables. Consider the following table of hypothetical data:


600 (A)
400 (B)
300 (C)
200 (D)
(Taken from Kunda 1999, p. 125)

Kunda reports that people tend to neglect the (C) and (D) cells to focus only on the relationship between (A) and (B). So, they draw the conclusion that Professors tend to be absent-minded. However, they fail to notice that given the information in (C) and (D), Professors are no more absent-minded than other members of the population. (See Kunda 1999, pp. 125-6 for further details and references.)

Putting aside for a moment the distinction between global and local fatalism, and treating ‘fatalism’ as a non-relativized predicate, we can imagine a similar bias arising if a person noted a larger percentage of fatalists than optimists in a given population. Plainly, I have not provided the data to show that this is the way things are; but this is at least a hypothesis worthy of further study.

What I have actually suggested is that the assignment of the property in question to a given population – the claim that Slavs or Central Europeans are fatalists – is the result of a quite different confusion. I have not suggested that it is a stereotype in the manner of the stereotype that professors are absentminded according to Zunda’s example; rather, it involves the registering of a property found more among one population than another, but misclassifying that property. And, unlike the example provided by Kunda, it’s not that people fail to compare two relevant groups. On the contrary, two relevant groups are compared, with a sort of biasing toward the group of which they are a member. At any rate, that is what I have suggested. Whether this is a correct understanding of the situation cannot be conclusively established without further study.

Tentative Support for the Suggestion that a Real Difference is Being Misclassified

Some tentative support for the suggestion that North Americans who encounter Central Europeans might misperceive or misclassify cultural differences comes from the differing baseline reports of personal satisfaction between societies. According to Ingelhart and Klingemann (2000) the mean life satisfaction rating in the United States is very high, and among all countries formerly part of the Soviet empire, life satisfaction ratings tend to be lower:

Virtually all societies that experienced communist rule show relatively low levels of subjective well-being, even when compared with societies at much lower economic level, such as India, Bangladesh, and Nigeria. (Ingelhart and Klingeman, 2000, p. 171)
Thus, because in former communist societies, the baseline personal satisfaction level is lower than the baseline in North America, a North American coming to a Central European country might be surprised that Central Europeans are so easily satisfied. And, a perception of the difference could get classified as “fatalism”. The thought process might be as follows: “Because this person is happy to have less than he or she deserves (where what one deserves is set by North American standards), the explanation must be a failure to believe in the efficacy of their own actions – i.e., the positing of a fatalistic character type.” This would combine the sort of reasoning found in the fundamental attribution error with an awareness of a real cultural difference. I hasten to add that this suggestion is offered as a hypothesis for further study, and not as a final diagnosis.


(PM): Are there patterns of thought which could be called Central European?

(AH) Central European thought is less rigid, more elastic. It has its own ethic and humor, however, with a marked dose of skepticism, and, in urban culture, even a bit of cynicism. It doesn’t take life 100% seriously. Central European culture has doubts about seriousness, and very often in Central European discourse there are ironic tones. For example, when Hungarians and Czechs meet, they know precisely what’s going on, and they are able to make jokes together in a way that a citizen of Bremen would not readily understand – and an American would understand even less. Americans cannot express themselves without deathly seriousness. – Agnes Heller in an interview with Petr Morvay (Morvay 2000; author’s translation)

To reject the categories which someone uses to describe a phenomenon is not to deny that the phenomenon exists. Americans are different from Central Europeans. North American Culture is different from Central European culture; and, so long as such cultural differences exist, people will employ language (and other cultural artifacts) in an attempt to capture them.

My discussion of fatalism was designed to highlight the crudity of Stroehlein’s glib phrase “Central European fatalism”. But, for all that, there is a cultural difference between Central Europe and America, and Stroehlein was right to point at that difference, even if he made no serious attempt to characterize it.

What can we learn from this exercise? Surely not that either fatalism or optimism is correct. There is a legitimate question whether any given pattern of thought found in a particular culture actually does more harm than good. American Optimism is itself a product of a situation and a historical legacy, and may not be particularly beneficial. The belief in the power of individuals is challenged, for example, by an insight so clearly expressed by Ted Honderich (Honderich 1997), the insight that modern democracies are hierarchical. The ability to choose the policies that will be actually followed in a society is very much in the hands of a small minority, those who have most of the society’s resources. As for the elaborate bit of theater called elections, it fails both because wealthy individuals buy their way into office via expensive advertising campaigns and because wealthy individuals form coalitions designed to promote their interests. Yet, the American myth of individual power and responsibility can blind Americans to awareness this fact… Perhaps this is only another example of the social psychologist’s observation that belief in the primacy of individuals can blind a person to situational factors

Nevertheless, from what Honderich says it is possible to derive two sources of optimism in this unhappy situation. First, there is the fact that non-violent resistance has been proved to work. He mentions the American Civil Rights Movement, Gandhi’s resistance to British rule in India, and the “Velvet Revolution” as examples. Secondly, there is the fact that despite their imperfection existing democracies are a means to a more democratic society, in part merely because they dare to call themselves democratic. Indeed, we might also say that the fact that the Velvet Revolution happened at all, and the fact that it was a revolution in which individuals consciously and publicly disavowed violent means, is one of the best reasons to have serious doubts about the category of “Slavic” or “Central European” Fatalism.18

On the contrary, if we wish to compare the bag of ideas I am calling “American Optimism”, which includes a firm belief in individual responsibility and power, with a Slavic or Eastern or Central European suspicion that political changes may not bring progress, we might note a remark recently made by William Epstein, a student of the history of America’s welfare state. (Epstein 2001) Speaking of the possibility of changes in America’s attitude toward the poor, and the possibility that people in the United States might become more generous and more willing to pay taxes to support a more generous system of social support, Epstein suggested that a certain amount of fatalism is justified.19

The goal of this paper has been to warn against viewing the people of Central Europe according to a stereotype – as fatalists. I have suggested that in Stroehlein’s interview that stereotype operated against background assumptions that determined what was interesting and what was “fatalistic” in what Lukacovic said. I have tried to explain why the background assumptions, “American Optimism”, are not plausible, and we have seen some possible explanations of why a person would be viewed primarily as a member of a group, and only secondarily as an individual.

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Bill Collinge, Vladimír Devecka, Peter Sykora, and two anonymous referees for this journal for comments on earlier drafts of this essay.


1 Krygier’s term “peasant fatalism” won’t seem so far from Slavic fatalism if one consults Simic 2001 where we are told that most Slavic peoples – with the exception of the Czechs – “remained a predominantly agrarian people until the mid-20th century.”

2 This list was, in fact, largely generated (i.e., with the exception of the quote from Stroehlein) by entering “Slavic Fatalism” into Google.

3 On metaphor, see Sperber and Wilson 1985. For discussion of and objections to the “code model” of communication, see Sperber and Wilson 1995, Chapter One.

4 Lustration laws are designed to prevent those who once had an important role in the communist party (or state security) from attaining high offices today.

5 For a presentation and analysis of the original argument, as well as further references, see Buller (1995).

6 Terminologically speaking, it may well be that what is usually called “determinism” in popular discussions (as in the dreaded “biological determinism”) is actually what philosophers label ‘fatalism’.

7 The picture of communication assumed here is roughly that of Sperber and Wilson 1995.

8 Anyone who thinks there is something called “talent” which operates independently of one’s personal circumstances and training would do well to consider work by psychologists which suggests that our intuitive or folk category of “talent” is itself a myth. Studies of musicians show that what the layperson perceives as “talent” is less a “gift” than the product of training – often begun early in life, but many hours of training and practice nonetheless. (Howe, Davidson, and Sloboda 1997)

9 The category of “self-evident” truth has not been especially popular in recent epistemology. So, Rorty is not exactly breaking new territory when he makes this point. For a recent discussion of the general question, see Harman 2000.

10 Here I exclusively concern myself with the question of whether ordinary people have the knowledge needed to choose wisely in matters social and political. But, there is another line of defense available to a defender of democracy: it may be an emotional or motivational fact that people are willing to give more of themselves, to make an effort, and to contribute if they are convinced that a government and its institutions serve their needs. Here, too, it is relevant to consider the suggestion (clearly expressed, for example, in J.S. Mill’s On Liberty) that a given individual is most aware of his or her own needs, hence most capable of expressing them. That is an important point which needs to be balanced with a appreciation of the capacity of various ideologies to lead individuals to sacrifice their true needs. Arguably, much political and especially national ideology educates individuals to ignore the frustration of their basic desires. (Cf. Diamond 1998, 277-8; Singer 1997 120-121)

11 Though Abrahms believes that in Czech society intellectuals had a special role, there is nothing in the article to suggest that he would necessarily make the further claim that I am making, that in general elites play such a role.

12 I don’t wish to suggest that people who originate ideas have full control over them, or that their origination is wholly a matter of individual creation. My point is to stress the fact that some individuals are more influential than others.

13 I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for posing the question that led to the writing of this section. The specific content of the section has been strongly influenced by discussion with Peter Sykora as well as reading drafts of Sykora forthcoming. (Obviously, he is not in any way responsible for any mistakes.)

14 Daniel Sperber relates commonsense psychology to methodological individualism in Sperber undated. For a summary of the developmental story, see Karmiloff-Smith 1992, Chapter 5.

15 Cf. Barry Smith’s suggestion that our preference for certain map shapes is one source of political conflict. This would, once again, be an instance of an explanation which does not appeal to commonsense or folk psychology, but considers the way that human beings process information. (Smith 1997)

16 In saying this I am a bit dogmatic about an issue of great importance in epistemology. See, e.g., François Récanati’s critique of Fred Dretske’s claim that one can refer to or think about an object without knowing what it is. (Récanati 1993, Chapter Ten, Section 2, 169-172.)

17 Kunda (1999) points out that much of the literature in social psychology on stereotypes has focused on the question of automaticity. One recent survey (Macrae and Bodenhausen 2000) concludes that the activation of stereotypes is “conditionally automatic”, and mention short-term goals and a person’s “prejudice level” as factors which might prevent activation of a stereotype. A remark in a more recent study by the same authors (Macrae and Bodenhausen 2001) is noteworthy: “Surprisingly … the question of exactly when it is that perceivers activate categorial knowledge structures remains something of a mystery.” (p. 8 in the pagination of my plain text print-out)

18 My appreciation of the extent to which the choice of non-violence was conscious is due to Krapfl 1999.

19 Epstein’s characterization of American culture: “Cheapness, cruelty, and indifference may be the attitudes learned in the cauldron of the puritanical, individualistic American culture.” (Epstein 2001)

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Author: Mark Lovas teaches Philosophy at City University in Bratislava and is an External Member of the Center for European Studies of Comenius University. His “The Significance of Schiffer’s Meaning-Intention Problem” appeared in the Slovak Academy’s journal of Analytic Philosophy, Organon F, in 1998. In 1999 he published a brief literary treatment of the philosophical problems raised by punishment, “The Price of the Times”, in Short Story. Currently he has the dual goals of keeping up with his home discipline of philosophy (with a specialization in the philosophy of language) while developing further interdisciplinary projects. Two of his rants have appeared in previous issues of JMB’s Outburst.

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