well! the nyt definitely seems to be in a philosophy phase.
Dreyfus and Kelly start with Vico’s old idea that each age has its own lens through which people see the world. In the Middle Ages, for example, “people could not help but experience themselves as determined or created by God.” They assumed that God’s plans encompassed their lives the way we assume the laws of physics do.
ok this is important: we need to think about the ways that "the spirit of the age" has to be manufactured, both in actual time and retrospectively. maybe there were plenty of medieval peasants who could help experiencing themselves as determined by god. either they stayed silent except with their immediate fellows, or they were burned alive. the reason we're not reading their books might be that there were no such people, that they couldn't publish, or that their works got expunged afterwards. were there cynical priests using the biblical yapyap to increase their power, status, sexual opportunities? obviously, and a lot of them, one suspects, didn't really accept the gassy claptrap constituting their unavoidable universal zeitgeist. but they continued to mumble the sort of enforced slogans which constitute the spirit of any age. so if there's a 'sprit of the age' we need to think about what is negated or repressed or concealed to make that possible, or for a generation or century to portray itself in a certain way. i don't think you can find any spirit of any age that doesn't produce skeptics, haters, negaters. we are social animals. we are also anti-social animals (this is what david brooks cannot understand; sometimes i think this is something only i understand), and every age is equivocal or contradictory.
there's this notion that the hegelian or vico zeitgeist is just an inevitable set of assumptions we all share or something: a lens through which everybody sees everything until it somehow gets replaced with the next one. actually i think many more options are available at all locations than this would suggest. not that everything is possible at every location, but to start with, a straight negation of the commonplace doctrines or structures - christianity, maybe, or democracy, or individualism or collectivism - is i want to say always common. there are people who want only to believe what everyone else believes (well, an impossible aspiration!) but there are also people who want only to believe the opposite of what everyone else believes. and that's easy; it definitely does not require an impossible transcendence of one's own era etc: all it requires is sticking a negation on the sentences other people are producing. the mechanisms by which the catholic church enforced its doctrines are guaranteed to produce secret satanists and materialists, even among its own priesthood.
another factor in the manufacturing of zeitgeists is the work of the historian, which is, first of all, also bound up in the power situation. whether it is or not, you're working up the past into a narrative or trying to make a completely bewildering bristling past into something comprehensible. no way to avoid that! but the zeitgeist thing first of all both reflects and erases the actual epistemic power relations: 'naturalizes' them as the inevitable unfolding of history. that it is a consensus more or less that people 'could not help' but regard themselves as determined (?) by god is scary. it is a tribute to the power of institutions to shape the way they are portrayed in history. power projects an interpretation of itself and of the world in which it operates into the future, and often it is completely successful, and the archives in which the historian rummages are its archives.
but to any historian who really wants to still take the zeitgeist idea seriously, i would point out that it is a classic dormitive virtue approach: it summarizes or re-states your conclusion rather than explaining your data. not only that, but without a shitload of work, it appears to be a supernatural 'explanation': it was precisely that in hegel, where the zeitgeist was a moment in the developing self-consciousness of god. excuse me but what or where is the zeitgeist? it's everything, everywhere, but as impalpable as the aether. you'd be much better off doing what most historians actually do at this point: actually fociusing on mechanisms of communication and repression by which consensus opinions, if any, are formed etc.