The Objectivity of Inter-subjectivity — especially for theory students who are theists

Over on one of my favorite blogs, a comment on Kuhn’s paradigms got me going, so please read below. I hope to post “an open letter to theory students who are theists” soon. (This will have to serve in the mean-time.)

Here’s a good example of how we are conditioned to go straight from any restriction or qualification of “objectivity,” all the way over to its famous opposite, “subjectivity. And we all do this! (Thanks, Greta.)

Kuhnian paradigms, however, ought to call our attention to the way our individual perceptions and interpretations are not “private” or peculiar to each one of us. They are mediated by powerful “intersubjective” frames that are very carefully worked out and constantly tested in the free-for-all of on-going conversations about what’s going on all around us.

Thinkers in the tradition stemming from Saussure call this “the objectivity of inter-subjectivity.” It means that we as human beings have had our consciousnesses organized and our perceptions conditioned by the languages of our shared human community — and by the other organized vocabularies of the various ways of knowing, and this grasp of formal interpretive systems (of the langues we all carry in our heads) both empowers us to know and also (by focusing our knowing efficaciously) will always be limiting our various efforts in knowing, in some respects.

This is not to be regretted as a loss of “absolutes,” however. Knowing for human beings is always heuristic. Let me say that again, because it makes all the difference for becoming a genuine knower in the tradition of the liberal arts (and in the historical Judeo-Christian faiths).

Knowing for human beings is always heuristic. It is a discovery procedure, directed towards the knowing of things that always exceed our grasp as knowers through their magnificent complexity and their interrelationship with other difficult and complex kinds of things.

This was the older theory of knowing that began with Plato — a theory of the many ways of knowing and their aim, which is to change us as knowers. Philosophy began as a vision of the liberal arts and sciences, and called us to become agile knowers, able to employ and integrate different ways of knowing, in order to deal as citizens with urgent problems and in order to press ahead as persons in knowing better the kinds of things we most desire and need to know.

The Christian faith is just such a way of knowing, and as much as or even more radically than Socratic philosophy, it calls us to constant re-examination of our paradigms rather than to any kinds of absolutisms, because our God (more than any other object of knowing) is not “an object” and exceeds any formulations we can make. Also, anything we suppose we are genuinely knowing about God has to be balanced and integrated with other things we are coming to know about God, so that there is no escape from the need to interpret, both as persons and as members of a community of knowing.

The gap or difference between what we desire to know better and the limitations of all of our instruments for knowing is the most fundamental reality that we need to embrace, if we are to be genuine knowers in any scriptural tradition.

To fail to grasp this is to succumb to idolatry and legalism, to mistake the letter for the spirit. This mistake, however, is essential to our journey, if we are journeying into real knowing (which is first of all humble). We cannot escape this twisting path, for there is no spirit apart from the letter. So Jesus said that the son of man came to abolish the law, and also that the law, every jot and title of it, would be fulfilled.

This is very exciting and compelling, actually, and not just to the earlier Western philosophers. For Christians, the greatest revelation of God is in the person of Jesus, in who Jesus is, and in the mighty works of God accomplished through his birth, death, and resurrection. We are not attempting to establish this person or these events as historical facts, though we take them to be such, but rather we are trying to understand what they mean: to come to know better what is their full reality.

There is no set of propositions whose acceptance will deliver us into newness of life. There is only the reality of what happened and continues to happen in many much larger and deeper senses, and it is of these truths that we strive to become knowers, which is to say imitators who can act out something of these realities from the deepening center of our (ever-fragmented) selves. The one thing requisite to doing this is knowing ever more fully that we cannot do it.

And the identical principle of knowing motivated Socrates to say that he was indeed the wisest person in all of Greece, but only because, alone of all, he at least knew that he did not know.

We are fortunate to have these substantial matters given to us to interpret and come to know, but interpret them we must. All human knowing is heuristic. Socrates’ question “What is Justice?” is in this respect no different from Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?”

Both questions call us into a journey of discovery,a journey made through disciplined experience and on-going formulations, but formulations that are always open to being exceeded and even demolished by the original subject-matter! (C. S. Lewis: “There is no progress save into a resisting material.” And there is nothing human beings ever encounter that is more resistant than an-other person.)

These beautiful realities we are invited to work to discover together, by joining a disciplinary tradition and making our way into its formalizations, always being reminded that each formulation is a part of a complicated larger meaning and that no formulation can be equated precisely with the reality that keeps on manifesting itself in our midst and in our own minds and histories. Today, we even have the exceptional privilege as knowers of having the resources of many traditions to nourish our growth and keep us humble and flexible.

But with the rise of science in the 17th century, we Westerners became accustomed for several hundred years to think of “knowing” as the accumulation of “knowledge,” and this was a knowledge defined as that which was “certain and absolute.” In the 20th century, the natural sciences explosively outgrew this mistaken and monolithic paradigm of rationality.

But we Christians and we old-school scientific rationalists as well (like that lovely man Richard Dawkins, who doesn’t understand that he himself is deeply religious) both of us remain stuck in that early Modern paradigm, at least here in the English-speaking world.

This is one reason why I am working on the older theory of knowing in the liberal arts that began with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and lasted 2000 years, until Newtonian mechanics became the new Kuhnian paradigm for knowing in the West during the Enlightenment.

As I see it, there have been at least three exceptionally honest and revolutionary ways of knowing in the Western liberal-arts tradition — philosophy, Christianity, and physics — and yet exactly one paradigm shift in our Western theory of knowing. If we look at the histories of these three disciplines, they will all tell us the same thing: that it’s about time to liberate ourselves again, in and through the ways of knowing.

It seems to me that the main difference between the distinctively modern forms of Christianity and the traditional Christian traditions involves this 17th-century shift in our theory of knowing. And unfortunately, by the 19th century, Fundamentalism arose as an attempt to transfer scientistic norms to the sphere of religion, by working out the possibility of another absolutely authoritative Knowledge, self-evident like Newtonian science, and therefore requiring an obedient acceptance rather than the tricky growth of personal and communal understanding. (This was understandable enough, but no more “Christian” than it was “scientific.”)

As Hannah Arendt showed, totalitarianism, and I would add, fundamentalism (whether of the religious or scientific-rationalist kind) are MODERN phenomena, quite different from earlier structures of government or thought. (And are we now exporting them to the global community as well?)

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10 Responses to “The Objectivity of Inter-subjectivity — especially for theory students who are theists”

  1. Rick Says:


    While I do not doubt that fundamentalism as we know it today is a modern phenomenon, I do doubt that the basis of the recent growth of fundamentalism (of all varieties) can be understood merely as different “ways of knowing”.

    Drawing on (but extending in my own way) Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, I think the current “clash” of, and with, fundamentalisms can be understood something like this:

    Most of us live most of our lives in a more or less understood social and intellectual world. That is we intuitively and unconsciously know how the social world we live in works, and how people in the world do (and should) behave. As long as the world, and the people in the word, that we normally share our social world with also share our basic understandings and behaviors, then these beliefs and behaviors are jointly understood and expected. Thus the normal state of the social world is that we conform to this expected and understood unconscious social and moral model, and everything goes along more or less smoothly.

    I see this “normal” state of affairs as similar to Kohlberg’s stage 3, we (and others) are seen as generally good or bad in accord to how they conform to society’s expectations, i.e., “the way things are done”.

    There can come a time, however, where those with whom we find ourselves having to interact do not conform to our understanding of the way society works, where “they” act contrary to the way “we” “know” (according to our intuitive, unconscious model of society) they “should” act. When this lack of conformance rises to a level which it undermines our idea of how society works; that is, it is seen a destructive (and not just harmlessly different), then there is a reaction – since we “know” how society “should” be, and how people “should” act, then it is not unnatural to come to the understanding that it “they” would just “act right”, the “proper” societal order would be restored and we could go back to “the way things should be”. Thus we move toward a “legalism”, where we find something in our understanding as a foundational basis for our social understanding, and raise it to a “law”, in an attempt to restore social order be forcing “them” to behave as they ought to restore rightness in the world, which their lack of proper behavior is disrupting.

    I see this movement as analogous to the movement Kohlberg discusses in the movement from stage 3 to stage 4, where goodness is understood more as conforming to laws (an externally identified standard of behavior) rather than just conforming to “the ways things are done” as in stage 3. This is forced onto people because of the breakdown experienced in the informal, intuitive “way things are done” has broken down as people are forced by circumstances to interact with people who act contrary to the normal understood way of behaving.

    Thus for certain theists who see an explicit belief in God as fundamental to their understanding of the basis for society, forced to deal with those who are (or appear in their understanding to be) “atheists” or “heretics” in that they do not share the understanding and possess an understanding what leads them to behave in a manner different from, and destructive to, the “right order of things”, are led to try to enforce this understanding of the right order of things be falling back on, and insisting on, the correct “fundamental” beliefs as understood to be needed to guide people for “correct” behavior.

    Likewise, when curtains folks who see their rationalist, scientific worldview under attack by those who do not accept, and are seen as attacking their rationalist, scientific worldview, fall back onto a kind of “legalism” in which there is an attempted enforcement of this worldview and a denigration of the opposite because it is see as, well, important. So they become “fundamentalist” rationalists.

    I think we can see a similar situation back in the Roman Empire, where the “atheistic” Christians were persecuted as undermining the social order by refusing to recognize and honor the gods (Jupiter et al) and thus inviting the gods to turn against Rome and bring disaster upon it. They became, in some sense, “fundamentalist pagans”.

    We may also see this in reformation times in which, on one side, the Church, which was seen as fundamental to proper social order, was being undermined by the reformers.

    So I think that your type of analysis of the way people think, their “ways of knowing”, is useful for understanding the contours of the conflict as it has arisen, but not necessarily as to the source of the conflict, that is the reasons the conflict has arisen. The conflict has arisen because each side sees in the other a mode of behaving and believing that is inimical to their understandings of “the way things are”, and has, it seems, arisen several times throughout history.

    If my understanding, roughly set forth above, has merit, then the rise of fundamentalism arises through a conflict of different ways of building and understanding out basic social relationships, where people see in the other a lack of (if I may) “righteousness” – beliefs and behaviors arising from these beliefs in conformance to the (understood) “way things are”. Things such as the questions of the realm of “scientistic norms”, while useful in analyzing the shape of the immediate conflict, do not address the deeper conflict of worldviews that leads to the conflict.

    Does any of this make sense to you?


  2. Janet Says:

    Hi Rick, it’s very good to hear from you.

    Yes, what you say makes lots of sense to me, and I’m familiar with this kind of model for the growth of individuals or groups, as for example, from “shame” cultures to more inward or conscience-based ethical standards, or from rule-orientation to more flexible ethical attitudes involving greater tolerance for ambiguity. I find these models very helpful, as do you.

    These would not be, for me, “different ways of knowing,” though. I am giving “way of knowing” a rigorous technical definition, as an ike or formalized inquiry into the nature of a kind of thing, as seen in Plato, Aristotle, and the earlier Western liberal arts tradition.

    When I speak of fundamentalism as a modern development, I am thinking specifically of the theory of what knowing itself is and how its authority is constituted. No one such way of knowing could be a universal knowing applying to all things, and neither could most of them lead to “certainty.” So I’m contrasting the theory of that inherently diversified array of formal disciplines with the monolithic epistemology that scientistic rationalists and fundamentalist Christians alike share. One authority; one absolute Knowledge. And above all the idea that if a person has possession of the “facts” of such knowledge, then that person must be a genuine knower of the truth of the subject-matter. But possessing the right set of concrete propositions or information or formulas is not the same thing as knowing or being a genuine knower, either in science or faith. Nothing so vulgar and reductive and inert as that, like saying that science proves God does not exist or that the Bible proves animals and humans did not evolve. This is confusion and conflation in the name of the idea that one methodology can deal with every subject-matter, even ones needed an entirely different methodology. THAT’s the absence of an adequate liberal education, that capacity to think so reductively and think that it’s a good thing, either for science or for faith.

    In terms of structural levels of analysis, Rick, this is similar to our confrontations over the ike called poetics in Plato’s Ion. You were more interested in the discussing the particular contents of the knowledge that a rhapsode might claim to possess. I was trying to sketch out a clearer schema for the theory of each and every formal way of knowing as being addressed to the formal structure of its own kind of thing, and conferring its own characteristic formal faculty of knowing upon its possessor. Hence Ion should have a lucid structural grasp of what epic poetry is and accordingly be able to assess the work of all epic poets. What you were arguing was perfectly sensible and insightful, and I good foil to my own endeavor, as I am trying to get beneath that more familiar standpoint you adopted, and grasp the formal structure of disciplinary knowing, back in the beginning of the arts and sciences.

    Thus I would suppose that unfortunately neither scientistic rationalists nor religious fundamentalists have been brought into effective engagement with the classical insight that founded the liberal arts in 4th-century BCE Athens. That there is no ONE way of knowing that can claim a universal knowledge or a universal kind of authority that best explicates every kind of thing.

    Rather, human beings become agile and responsible knowers only when they have experienced contact with the truth of a subject-matter through its own discipline, and then ALSO experienced contact with the truth of other subject-matters, through THEIR disciplines. This chastened respect for the intrinsic limits of every way of knowing, and this development into a knower with many well-developed faculties for knowing (the different kinds of things) — this IS what the liberal arts and sciences were originally all about and why such an education was thought capable of forming “free” citizens. Not citizens who know everything, but citizens who know how to know, with the intrinsic potentials and limitations of each kind of knowing within a panoply of valid disciplines.

    It is no diminution of the Christian faith, or of any other theism, to say that the disciplines whereby we struggle at knowing God are not the same disciplines whereby we strive to come to know jazz music or differential calculus. The fun comes in attempting to synthesize wihtout conflating, and to consider the claims the various ways of knowing with respect to one another. To say that the natural sciences yeild the most ultimately important kinds of knowing (of the most ultimately important kinds of things) or that the religious ways of knowing, dealing with God, are more important — that is for each human being to decide. But the wisdom and freedom comes only when we have a clear grasp of how and why these are very different instuments of knowing and directed to formally very different kinds of things, and that we can’t know how to know well in one avenue if we cannot recognize the difference — which means seeing the kinds of validity and the kinds of knowledge-claims made in each case.

    What bothers me about the rampant factionalism in our society now, between Democrats and Republicans, or natural scientists and cultural theorists, or aethists and true believers, is that each faction finds its own views self-evident and so overwhelmingly obvious that they deride and make fun of the other factions as being entirely without merit — and to do so they make use of a theory of knowing or an epistemology that arose in the form of a SINGLE method for arriving at the ONLY CERTAIN knowledge. Both scientism and fundamentalism are characteristically MODERN mindsets because they employ a specific new epistemology that arose in a new thought-world (17th and 18th centuries) — in which it was for the first time conceivable that one way of knowing could be a universal, omnibus science, and by itself be adequate to deliver certitude and absolute knowledge to human beings.

    Religious fundamentalism has some new and uniquely modern features, ones borrowed from scientism, if fact. But the sciences themselves no longer employ the modern theory of knowledge, if they ever did in practice. The contributions of scientists on this website (in discussions under Part IV) show how very sophisticated the working scientists are about their methodolgies and aims and acheivements; the same kind of sophistication is evidenced, by the way, in discussions of faith and theology and scriptural interpretation among non-fundamentalist Christian traditions.

    I think Erasmus got it right in the 16th century when he asked, “How can any believer expect to read and interpret the Bible, unless first they have learned how to READ and how to INTERPRET?” And that learning included the study of the arts of rhetoric and poetry, which showed just how fascinating and tricky interpretation can be. One studied these ikes long before one ever got to any of the mathematical or the philosophical or the theological disciplines.

    I have worked out, now, a very sharp and precise account of these two models (or theories) of knowing (there are certainly others, but these have been the crucial ones in the history of the arts and sciences).

    So I can see how my attempts on this site have been too general and vague — I need to spell out the steps in my current hard-headed argument, and that’s an argument with a long historical sweep to it.

    But based on what I’ve just said here, does THIS make any sense to YOU?

    The two models, of course, that I’m referring to would be the first Greco-European theory of many epistemes (each suited to its own kind of thing, as explored in the Wily Socrates posts here) versus the early modern epistemology worked out, supposedly in support of science, that makes an account of how to arrive at a monolithic, universal, and absolutely certain knowledge (Descartes, Leibnitz, Hume, Kant).

    The wonderful thing is that all the disciplines have transcended the elephantine closures of Enlightenment epistemology, and have worked themselves back into a vitality and excitement consonant with the older theory of knowing, and yet we in the universities haven’t seized on this as the welcome re-opening of thought and knowing, but instead tend to see it as an attack either on science or on religion.

    We are lost in a muddle of lamenting the “loss of absolutes” and the “rise of relativism,” when genuinely knowing truth has always been a limited and partial affair, and never had anything to do with obtaining and flaunting some kind of absolute or certain Knowledge. Quite the opposite, and especially in respect to the Christian faith, in which Christ requires quite as much ongoing re-examination of all one’s assumptions in a struggle to acheive a living understand as Socrates did.

    The reason this is not in itself cause for despair (that knowing is inherently multi-avenued and limited) is that humans have never needed to have absolute and certain knowledge. What they have always needed, instead, is enough agility, responsibility, and wisdom as knowers to integrate the ways of knowing and to meet the exigencies of their lives and to attempt to renew the communal good in the face of disaster, over and over again.

    In Christian terms, to struggle to win and grasp anew over and over again, by being changed as a knower, through drawing on every resource and discipline one can in Christian tradition and practice. These things can’t be reduced to a set of enduring formulas. The formulas have to be put to work and mistakes have to be made, and even the formulas themselves given new meanings and relationships on a deeper formal level, just as in the sciences. And we never get there, as knowers, arriving finally at the finished account. If we did, either as would-be scientists or as would-be knowers of God, the next day we would have to renew the effort all over again to grasp the meaning of that account, and the next generation would still have to do it all over again in a changing and evolving situation, just like quantum physics does….

    To close down these energies of knowing and these hard-won, transfiguring moments of contact with the substance of what we are trying to know — things only possible by the formal narrowing and exclusive focus adopted by a disciplinary community — and to pretend instead that we can be right by clinging to a certain concrete content of knowledge, this is a kind of blasphemy against the call of science and against the call of religion to all human beings to become knowers, and to join personally in the work of knowing, and to become open to every formal, disciplined avenue of knowing, in the interests of becoming more fully developed and agile and wise knowers, especially when we return back once again into our own most cherished ways of knowing.

    In the early centuries of Christianity, heresy was not identified as an erroneous teaching. No, it was identified as the taking of a true teaching and emphasizing it out of proportion to its interrelationships with all the other true teachings. This is highly telling, I think. It is a much more complex model for working one’s way into the substance of a truth than we are usually stuck with in our thought-world. Talk about being inherently limited as knowers!

    One can only make progress into a material that resists (and empowers) one as a knower, at every point, where even the genuine deepening of a true understanding will be at the same time the beginning of a new potential darkness. But each point of contact that is experienced is still so wonderful, so beautiful, that one must gladly persist, aware all the while that no-one can ever achieve anything like the truest and fullest balance, or ever teach how to find such a thing either. It’s enough to be a small part, caught up in the unfolding that knowing is.

  3. Rick Says:


    You ask if what you said makes any sense to me. I guess I have to say “not really”.

    At one level, it does. Clearly each disciple, each “kind of thing”, has its won rules, practices, ways of doing and manners of understanding itself. Chemistry is different from physics; no one will confuse a general chemistry textbook with a general physics textbook, what chemists do is different than what physicists do. Yes, there is a theoretical overlap between chemistry and physics, and yes, there are developing areas of nanochemistry in which the distinctions are increasingly blurred, but in general they are different areas and different disciplines, and expertise in one does not translate automatically into expertise, of even some lower level of general competence, in the other.

    Plays (such as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar) are a different field of literature than biography. We do not judge Shakespeare’s play by the standards of biography, nor a biography by the standards of stage plays.

    And, of course, we do not do chemical analysis on a stage play.

    And clearly it is true, as you said, that “And above all the idea that if a person has possession of the “facts” of such knowledge, then that person must be a genuine knower of the truth of the subject-matter.” The “facts” must be connected and understood through a theoretical understanding of how they fit together. I earlier gave a quote from Darwin that I think sets this out:

    About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!

    If, as Darwin noted, the observations (“facts”), if they are “to be of any service”, must fit into a theoretical understanding of the field. As I noted in a (much) earlier post, the observation that in Jowett’s translation of Ion (at least the copy I got from The Internet Classics Archive), there are no “U”’s and 582 “u”’s is, like counting the pebbles, (probably) a useless fact for understanding the dialog. What counts as useful facts is determined by the theoretical structure which we use to understand the particular field, and find their usefulness in the manner in which they fit together in a coherent theoretical whole.

    So far, so good. If you want to learn physics, you must learn to “think like a physicist” and understand the sorts of things physics deals with and how it deals with them. If you want to learn about stage plays, you must learn to think like one who knows about stage plays, and what is important, and what is only incidental, to such plays.


    The relationship between facts and theory is not all one-way. Facts of the relevant kind that do not fit into the theory can challenge the theory. New ways of looking at the facts can make facts previously taken as relevant become less relevant, and facts previously taken to be irrelevant to be relevant in a new understanding. The facts and the theory are in constant “conversation”. It is like a building in which the facts are like the bricks and the theory is like the blueprints – in “normal” times the facts “simply” comprise the building, but occasionally we discover that a building constructed with these particular blueprints and these particular bricks will not stand; the blueprints and the bricks do not fit together in manner in which reflects the idea of the building expressed in the blueprints, and the building collapses.

    You seem to be saying things which appear to be denying this complemetarianism – you seem at times to be saying that the theory is “all there is” and the facts are irrelevant.

    For example, I do not deny (at least to my understanding of it) that “the theory of each and every formal way of knowing as being addressed to the formal structure of its own kind of thing, and conferring its own characteristic formal faculty of knowing upon its possessor.” That is, I accept that there is a “formal structure” to physics, or chemistry, or the study of stage plays, or biography, or cooking, or sandal-making, or whatever, that, as developed fields, we need to understood, accepted and worked within to understand and do physics or chemistry, or whatever.

    But where, in your account, is the role of the facts? You say “Ion should have a lucid structural grasp of what epic poetry is and accordingly be able to assess the work of all epic poets.” But what is relevant here is he – by his own account – does not know “all the epic poets”. He knows Homer. He does not know Hesiod. How can he “discuss all the epic poets” in general, how can he discuss Hesiod in particular, if he, for whatever reason, does not know Hesiod? This is not, as you apparently see it, some overintrest in “the particular contents of the knowledge that a rhapsode might claim to possess”, but rather an interest in 1) what is the contents of these “formal structure” (using the formal structure of being a rhapsode as an example), which must have some relation to the actual writings of actual epic poets, and 2) the relationship between the “formal structure” and the individual, in this case actual particular epic poets.

    I do not see how, no matter how much theoretical knowledge someone might have as to the “formal structure” of novels, that one could reasonably claim that such a person could “accordingly be able to assess” Moby Dick unless that person has actually read it. Such a person would have available the tools to assess the book, but without actually having read it, would not be able to discuss it at all. It is like a would-be-cabinet-maker with a shop full of the latest wood-working tools but no wood.

    It seems to be that you are claiming that it is irrelevant that Ion does not know Hesiod, and that – without ever having (sufficiently) read Hesiod he would still, if he had a “true” “formal understanding” of epic poetry, be able to discourse on that of which he has no factual basis on which to base his analysis. The knowledge of the “formal structure” will simply not allow one to somehow “intuit” what is needed to apply the formal structure to any particular instance in the world; one must do the work of finding out the (relevant) “facts-of-the-matter”.

    Simple empty ivory-tower allegations that there is some “formal structure” to any field of endeavor are just that – empty ivory tower allegations. The “formal structure” of any filed has content, and is related in some manner to the “facts-of-the matter”. It is the interrelationship of the “formal structure” and the “facts-of-the matter” that can give rise to any useful or meaningful understanding and activity in the world.


  4. Janet Says:

    I agree 100% with everything you say Rick, especially the continual “conversation” between facts and theory, in every way of knowing as it progresses. They mutually interact and (re)shape each other all the time. But as soon as you say that, you are not using Enlightenment norms of scientific thought but more sophisticated “post-Modern” understandings, ones that have evolved through the critique of Modernity within every discipline throughout the 20th century. (I’m sorry if I keep harping on that historical shift, but it looms large in my mind. My students say I am prone to spend too much time arguing with the past, and that they have moved way past all that. “That’s YOUR generation,” they say. Well, I think, you ARE more tolerant of ambiguity, and some would say more “relativistic,” but does that mean you can think lucidly about the ways that facts are not absolute any longer and how thinking can be sharper and more powerful than ever?)

    So, it seems to me that perhaps you and I are both sometimes engaged in battling with a “straw man” — strawmen or threatening problems that are very real to us, but that perhaps are not as much in play in our conversation as we suspect they are — because we are actually both trying hard to transcend the previous “bind” or “argument” between science and theory by embracing new and more answerable/fruitful understandings.

    When you say “simple empty ivory tower allegations,” you are citing a danger that is very real to you, because you may be thinking of certain irresponsible “theoretic” statements that have insistently misrepresented the hard sciences. On the other hand, I am always on the hunt as a humanist, against the huge problem we face in our classrooms of that bad old deeply engrained naive-empiricist vaunting of the “hard facts,” without any of the sophisticated awareness of the role of theory that you always demonstrate. That all the physicists (and biologist) here have demonstrated.

    I was thinking recently about how this entire conversation here began, with a couple of physicists admitting that they sometimes have had the impression that a humanist colleague was trying to explain something to them that WAS very important. They DID want to understand it, they said. But they were not getting it. Unfortunately, some of the English-speaking theorists (who might otherwise be able to explain it best) have had an animus against the sciences or have had not enough real grasp of the hard sciences to avoid antagonizing potential scientist-hearers. (I have learned a great deal about THAT on this website! And I’m using what I’ve learned!)

    I think that right now, off-line, I am writing a successful extended discussion of how we might forge a way that carries both scientists and humanists through this impasse; that describes and accounts for the interplay of fact-and-theory in all of the disciplinary fields. I find that I am using physics for most of my examples, so that readers can see that I love the sciences and do have an appreciation of how scientific method works and that I am not attacking its validity or credibility. I can only hope to find some readers who will be open enough and care enough about the problem (of the “two camps”) to transcend their natural and necessary defense of their own disciplines — to really try a fresh approach, toward investigating rigorously what constitutes genuinely knowing and marks “truth” in each of the arts and sciences and all across the ways of knowing.

    To do this, I need to be able to talk about a “substantiality” that is neither fact nor theory, but the process of disciplinary thinking as a whole, as it gives rise to always evolving theory and always re-interpretable facts — a vocabulary that resists being dichotomized into mere abstract ideas and mere physical objects. There ARE theories and facts, of course, in every discipline, as you’ve effectively pointed out time and again, Rick. But that doesn’t mean that theories are simply abstract “ideas” or that facts are hard object-like “things.”

    I don’t allege that you think this way, or WANT to think this way — I just think all of our current vocabulary is constructed upon a dualism and that any conventional terms we use are infused with that dualism. We need another vocabulary if we are to talk about how both theory and facts are functional aspects of the same on-going dynamical human activity and structuring process that is the discipline itself and constitutes its historical development.

    So when I use terms like “formality” or “theory” I am thinking of something active and substantial, not an abstraction or an empty map. And when you use the term “facts,” you are thinking of things that are the evolving best understandings to date, and you are not concretizing them into fixed absolutes. But any account that explicitly moves away from “fixed and absolute facts” gives everyone this queasy feeling that we are moving into a groundless relativism and that scientific truth is going to be undermined. I haven’t forgotten the (just a bit nasty) implications of those poetic metaphors about drawing maps until there’s no empirical reality left in them! But believe me, I understand that fear! So I’m asking readers to trust me, at least for the sake of a deeper discussion.

    I can’t put that book-length argument here on the website, though I have you and other readers in mind and I’m much happier with the explanatory power I’m now achieving than with anything I’ve managed here. (I’ll be happy to hear what y’all think. And I’ll be getting it out as soon as I can.)

    But I am wondering, Rick, if you’d maybe want to return to the readings of Ion that we left off doing at “Wily Socrates # 7″? We had nearly reached the point at which I could begin to show how Plato “turns” the Ion around, and shows the necessity of different ways of knowing tp be grasped by any genuine knower. (We wouldn’t have to keep on arguing as much as we did before, because I think we are actually reaching a common ground that we can both stand on to talk meaningfully to each other — across the painful and destructive science-humanist gap.)

    What I mean is, perhaps it wouldn’t take you (or me) so much time or length of writing as it did before, to make our contributions, if we started up again. Neither of us can spend our retirements writing on this weblog!!! Let me know if you’re game….

    If you do sign on for a few more rounds, then I need to clarify one point about the rhapsode Ion that I neglected to make clear. The works of the Greek epic poets were the most esteemed literary legacy of Greece, and citizens fo the city-states knew them, and especially the rhapsodes, who were trained in epic. Ion did “know” Hesiod, in the sense you describe above, the same way a lit teacher knows the works of Shakespeare, so for Ion to say he could only “wax rhapsodic” over Homer, but not make insightful comments at all on Hesiod — this really did indicate that he was clueless about “the art (ike) of epic poetry,” if such an ike were to exist at all. Why did Plato choose to have Socrates take on such a defective rhapsode? I think it is because he want us to get intrigued about trying to see if we could defend poietike better than Ion managed to do…or if Socrates’ dismissal is quite appropriate.

    Plato has a habit of bringing us right up to the brink of where insights might be found into incredibly important issues — and then stepping back to let us try our own skills upon them. The very fact that so many of the dialogues take issue with false rhetoric (the Sophists) and with poetry means there is something profoundly important here to think about. Plato wasn’t interested in the specific conclusions, as such (mere temporary “facts” or answers) so much as in getting us engaged in THINKING THE ELEGANT STRUCTURE OF THE PROBLEM, because that’s where the next break-through will be effected. (Think Einstein in 1905.)

    Even a specialist, as I know you would agree, Rick, has to be able to say something cogent, beyond just his own favorites. when they are all widely-known and closely related examples of his own genre of literature. But what Ion does NOT understand about possessing a genuine discipline becomes even more important in the final section of the dialogue — and in a rather tricky way.

  5. Rick Says:


    If you want to pick up Ion again, I’m game.

    You suggested that I am reacting to a preceived “a danger that is very real to [me], because [I] may be thinking of certain irresponsible ‘theoretic’ statements that have insistently misrepresented the hard sciences” from those who may “have had an animus against the sciences or have had not enough real grasp of the hard sciences to avoid antagonizing potential scientist-hearers.” Well, maybe. But I think there is something else going on. It’s a reflection of the way I think. I generally understand things by seeing how they fit together and how they can be used (maybe htat’s why I have been attracted to the math/science/engineering fields). It is the connections between the formal structure and the facts of the matter that give the basis from meaning. A claim that there is some “formal structure” to some field – however true that may be – is not to me particularly meaningful to me, unless it is accompanied by some indication of the actual contents of this formal structure and how this formal structure illuminates, and helps to explain, the actual field to which the formal structure applies. This is how science works – we look for general theories that treat a wide variety of phenomena, but to the the phenomona they must be applicable to particular instances of the phenomona being treated. It is also how I tend to think, and I would think I am not alone in this manner of thinking.

    For said “Plato wasn’t interested in the specific conclusions” – which seems to me to be saying that Plato wasn’t interested in being meaningful, and wasn’t interested in saying anything useful. It is only in how the “structure of the problem” flows from, and is applicable to, “specific conclusions” that give the whole enterprise meaning and utility. A scientific theory is meaningful and useful to the degree that it explains some class of situations in the world. A theory (formal structure) of chemistry that does not lead to “specific conclusions” as to various observed chemical reactions and their products is neither a meaningful nor a useful theory. A “formal structure” of novels that does not flow from and is not applicable to specific conclusions about specific novels is a waste of time. To the degree that there is a danger that our theortical constructs lose touch with their factual basis, this danger is avoided precisely by showing that, and how, the theoretical constructs do apply to the world outside the theory in particular, specific cases. I would think that a theory or a “formal structure” be a theory aobut something, or a formal structure of something, is more than just a reaction agians some “percieved danger”, but gets to the very heart of the enterprise of knowing the world.

    Changing the subject, have you seen the new book A Secular Age, by Charles Taylor. It’s long and dense, but it looks like the kind of thing you would be interested in.


  6. Janet Says:

    Thanks for the book recommendation, Rick. Sounds good; I hadn’t seen it yet.

    When I said Plato wasn’t concerned with the “specific conclusions,” I meant that in the dialogues, where he is being a Socratic teacher, he isn’t interested in presenting answers or conclusions, but in causing wonder and prodding us into insight as to where the deep questions might lie. He was teaching us how to go about thinking, which for him meant thinking formally (theoretical thinking = formal thinking, using formal “languages” such as mathematical or geometrical ones or technical ones to uncover the “form” of the kind of thing), so that we could become knowers able to tackle the questions, because that’s the wonder of knowing, pushing on, never being finished or mistaking the best answers to date as being the final answers….

    I wonder if you have read my most recent post yet? There I finally gave us the terms, perhaps, to clarify the debate. The importance of theory, theory of knowing, and especially theory of the literary work, lies in its potential to awaken us to just how very different the kinds of theories must be for the different kinds of subject-matters. That the knowing mind in each discipline actually follows the logic and structure of the to-be-known in each case and not a general or universal logic (or the logic of one discipline writ large).

    So I agree with the tenor of your long paragraph above, but I think Plato’s Ion is especially good at showing us with dramatic vividness how not to make the mistake of supposing that the valid critieria for connecting our theoretical language with the world in one discipline will also apply for every other discipline. Overall, as you know, I think we lack a deep formal theory for grasping how much the various disciplines differ and we need a new formal vocabulary for talking about it. Enter Plato’s Ion! (Glad you’re game to continue.)

    The way that literary theory grasps its object is especially revolutionary and instructive — it challenges and upsets the ways other disciplines work, not to invalidate them, but to arm and equip them to think with greater agility and responsibility. I’m glad you are aware of the way you tend to think about connecting theory to the world, given your own background. So now it is up to me to show how differently, but precisely, literary theory thinks. (And why that’s important for liberally educated knowers.)

    By the way, though I can’t support this here, I’d like to say that for me it is too weak to say that theory is an “explanation” of “some class of situations” in the world, even though that is the standard modern epistemology. I think that efficacious theory is always the strong, dynamic skeleton structure of every art and science, and thus theory is what is always carrying us closest to that which is itself the strong, dynamic skeleton structure of the “class of situations” we are seeking to know. Theory is the great mediator between the knower and the to-be-known, and what it describes lies at a level somewhat deeper than the readily apparent manifested facts of the matter. Theory goes deeper than the facts and reconstructs them on the basis of deeper structure.

    Also by the way, I’ve been impressed recently with Wallace’s _Dismantling the Universe_, [N.B. wrong author named -- corrected in the next comment] which works very carefully through the various components of scientific discovery and investigation, and his arguments and examples seem to me especially compelling when he gets to the chapter he calls “The Primacy of Theory.” I think Kip Thorne has similar views.

    Einstein’s relativity theories and the standard theory of quantum particles (1960s) are great examples of how far ahead of any observed facts the theoretical dynamics carry scientific disciplines, and rightly so.

    It fascinates me how much you worry about theory being “empty”…(and I know you speak for more than just yourself in this). If we could accomplish one thing by reading the rest of Plato’s Ion, I wish it would be that I could show clearly how reading the dialogue based on theory of literature (poietike) is not an “empty” reading, or an example of theory with no “useful” connection to the world.

  7. Janet Says:

    Okay, the book _Dismantling the Universe_ is by Richard Morris, a (neuro?)scientist and he is, I think, a really fine historian of science. It was first published in 1983.

    As for theory or “maps” of states of affairs in the world, I think F(x) equations are a good example, perhaps. In the discipline of mathematics, such an equation is a formal part of a highly formalized ike. After Descartes combined geometry and algebra with his invention of what became the Cartesian coordinate planes, and Newton and Liebnitz invented differential and integral claculus, one who possesses the ike can tell at a glance if the equation describes a line, a parabola, an ellipse, and all of this is a valid part of knowing how to do mathematics. (perhaps mathematics is IN ITSELF an instance of a purely theoretical or formal science that began by mapping observed relationships in the world (always abstracting though) and ended up going on and on through its own formal operations and explorations. Now that is, if you like, an “empty” map or an empty theory until someone applies it to the physical world, but it is valid for the ike of mathematics, and I don’t think we consider it empty at all.

    But when physicists take this formalized “language” and use it to plot out a function derived from observed data, then the function becomes a part of the theory of physics, and isn’t it clear that it is the relationship between the formal function (whose dynamics comes from another field) and the aspect of the world being examined that make it a part of physics theory? To me theory always arises from the facts of the matter but gets at something deeper than those facts, taken as facts. The facts are our clues to the formal operations that generate them, let us say. (You might see my own structuralist background here, rather than analytical philosophy.)

    And isn’t it yet also clear that the function itself is more important and powerful for knowing than the “results” or the specific “data” being plotted? One can add a constant (gravitational constant etc.) to a formula and get better results, or one can make measurements in different coordinate frames and get the same laws of physics: the facts change but the laws remain the same…as Einstein taught us.

    When Galileo did his experiments rolling very hard shiny balls down inclined planes and realized that he was looking for an ideal law, because in any empirical situation, friction and air resistance would change the results and obscure the law — when Galileo decided to ignore elements of the empiricial world in order to find an ideal law for free fall in a vacuum — even given that he did not believe that a vacuum could exist in nature and it was 200 years before anyone proved it could — wasn’t he relying on the remarkable evidence of the proportionate relationships he observed between speed, distance, and time, relationships that persisted through any degree of tilt? For the Greeks, the notion of ratio-nal fundamentally meant “proportionate” — and the elegance of the proportionate guided their philosophical theory and theory of the liberal arts.

    That wonderful formality is what I mean when I say “theory” — those functional and structural relationships that we try to formalize because they seem to underlie and generate the specific results or facts of a given kind of thing. So theory always begins with facts and materials and is checked back against them — that is a given of theoretical thinking and analysis.

    Physics uses mathematics and geometry as languages out of which it builds its formal theoretical descriptions, of course. It also uses ordinary language, which it turns into technical vocabulary by careful functional definition, as Galileo did when he defined acceleration, but he could not generalize his work as Newton did, because he used “speed” rather than defining a new term, “velocity,” as a vector quantity. This way of working with formal definitions and new terms based on combining newly formalized attributes would have been entirely recognizable to Aristotle as the way all ikes or ways of knowing work. We take the materials provided by formalized languages available to us, and then we create new disicplinary formulations by lining them up with the things we want to know more deeply and evolving theory that is SPECIFIC to that kind of thing.

    Now when theorists of theory get to working in their discipline, there is a meta-level that may seem “empty,” but it is highly focused and substantive if you are adept in theory of theory….

    P.S. Here’s a question I have for mathematicians / physicists out there. I warn you, this is tougher than it might at first appear….

    Given that Galileo calibrated his units so that “1″ — the first unit of time — equaled “1″ — the first unit of distance — then the observation that distance covered was always the square of the time elapsed followed when he looked at his tables of data. But would it have been possible for the relationship to have been a cubed relationship? or a “1 and 1/2 squared” relationship? Could Newton’s universal law of gravitation have been an inverse cube law or some-irrational-power inverse law? Or does the initial calibration of the units eliminate that messy option?

    It didn’t matter that the force of gravity at the earth’s surface was 9.8 m/s/s — if the earth had been larger or smaller Galileo would have found the same kind of law for the force of gravity, in just the same way. But what factors determine that it is the inverse square law that applies — could a different universe have a different relationship between mass, distance, acceleration, and time: I mean one that wasn’t an “even” square, so to speak? Or does the calibration of the initial units guarantee an even relationship?

    Metaphysically speaking, is it unusual and striking that the gravitatinal force (whatever it is) observes an inverse square law? Or that the distance varies as the square of the time for objects accelerated by gravity? Certainly it is compelling for everyone who ever works in physics because it is so elogant — and it electrified Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and ushered in the age of science and the Enlightenment…. (Maybe this question is kind of like the anthropic principle question, and we know what a can of worms that one is.)

  8. Rick Says:


    I’ll throw out some thoughts on your question about gravity.

    The short answer, I suspect, is no, there could not be some other relationship.

    In other contexts, the inverse square relationship is a consequence of space being three dimensional. Remember the “butter gun”? When something (light, butter) is radiating out from a point, the basic geometry of three-dimensional space dictates an inverse square law. (In flatland, a two-dimensional space, it’s a simple inverse relationship).

    Now, as far as I know, we don’t really have (yet) a good theory of gravity that connects gravity up to the rest of the structure of the universe. But, given that gravity follows an inverse square law, when such a law is built in to the three-dimensional structure of the space for other types of phenomoena, it would seem very unlikely that this is just happenstance for gravity. It would seem to me the be much more likely that the inverse square relationship for gravity is “built in” to the structure of the three-dimensional universe in the same way that it is built into the stucture of the three-dimensional universe for the radiation of light, or butter.

    The inverse square relation does not arise from the sort of “calibration” you mention. As long as our systems of units are in a linear relationship to each other, the inverse square relationship holds. The classical inverse square relation for gravity is F = G*m_1*m_2/d^2. G is just a constant to make the units come out right, and differs according to what units we are using. When we are using the mks system of units, then G = 6.67*10^-11 m^3/(kg*sec^2). When we change units, we will change the numberical value of G, but the relationship between the quantities remains the same. In a system of pound_mass, feet, second, the numerical value is (if I did the math right) 1.07*10^-9. We can choose unorthodox units – say measure distance in parsecs, time in millenia, and mass in solar masses – and find the numerical value of G (again, assuming my math is right) in this system of units is 4.47*e-9. We could use cubits, talents, and hours (G = .265 cubit^3/(talent*hour^2)) if we wanted. The only thing that changes is the numberical value of G; the inverse square relation remains the same. We can choose out units so that the numberical value of G is 1, which for numberical computations gets rid of the G and thus simplifies the math a little, but this does not change the shape of the relationship.

    Could the numberical value of G be different? I suppose so, in the sense that the speed of light could be different. But probably the inverse square relationship is a consequence of space being three-dimensional, and would thus requre a different kind of universe (like flatland) to be different.


  9. Janet Says:

    This is very helpful. Thanks so much, Rick.

  10. janeaire Says:

    Wow, my head is spinning.

    So, we have maps (ways of knowing) for various territories. Seems to me that it’s simply a matter of picking the maps and territories in accord with an *intention*. There are some intentions that are best served by science, and other intentions best served by religions, and so on.

    The tricky bit, as I see it, is figuring out my intentions.

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