Archive for June, 2007

Wily Socrates # 3

June 27, 2007

Continuing Conversations…. First a couple of quick announcements and then we’ll get back to reading Plato’s Ion below.

Folks, we’ve have some great conversations going on! (I’d better add a Page called Red-Hot Comment Threads, just to keep you up to date on the conversations that’re happening here, which can’t be seen from the front page.)

Also, over at 3 Quarks Daily, I noticed two very important thought pieces I’d like to recommend quickly, before returning to Plato’s Ion. First, there’s a piece on the “Progressive Muslim” movement, showing some affinities to the thinking of those postmodern Christian theologians we discussed back in my Kevin Hart post, about whom some of us are interested. I’m particularly struck by the way these Islamic believers are combining a “conservative” or “traditionalist” (for lack of better terms?) approach that is pushing back against mere (theological) liberalism, along with, at the same time, an urgent cry for social justice and putting that into practice. (This has affinities, fo course, to what is going on within Evangelicalism.)

The other piece I’d like to recommend is on “evo-devo,” a newer field of scientific research into “evolutionary development.” They’re finding that it doesn’t take endless eons of random mutations to produce evolutionary advances, because certain proteins can turn on and over-produce and speed things way up. It even deals with Darwin’s finches as an example. Talk about historical synchronicities….

Now, back to the on-going “Wily Socrates” posts! My idea here was to use Plato to introduce for our consideration some fresh vocabulary terms, that we might be able to use for talking about disciplines as diverse as physics and poststructuralism. (So far I’ve introduced the terms “formal ike” and the “formal-kind-of-thing,” and “rhetor-ike” and “poiet-ike”….

We’re working on this website towards a set of descriptive terms that are less contentious and less loaded than some of the terms already in use, such as “truth,” in the sense of “universal” or “absolute” truth, and “objective truth” as implicitly opposed to non-objective (i.e. subjective) untruth, all of which are terms that have heavy, heavy histories since the Enlightenment and have been subjected to a good deal of criticism and contention in the 20th century…. We want to have a vocabulary permitting us to accredit the genuine (and enviable) strengths of science, its experimental verification procedures, its mathematical elegance and precision, and its drive toward ever-increasing comprehensiveness, while still allowing for the substantial rigor of non-scientific fields whose subject-matters are not amenable to the same approaches.

Remember, by the way, that my own first field is 17th century studies, and so I have been immersed for many years in the historical texts in which the new ideas of the Enlightenment emerged, in support of the rise of science, and, to my enormous regret, these “worldview” attitudes and assumptions are not so neatly separated from the simple doing of science itself, even though I want to agree with what Rick, for example, so thoughtfully argues. (You could take a look at Caroline Merchant’s collection of 17th-century texts dealing with the new methodology in The Death of Nature, for instance.)

But when I am trying to characterize some historical and cultural outlooks associated with science, it seems that our scientists who are explaining quantum mechanics (QM) on this site (under Session One, Part # 4) are feeling that humanists and theorists such as myself do not always understand the “continuity” of Newtonian science with later science, or science’s beautiful neutrality and honesty and openness to revision (qualities I take to be fundamental to any way of knowing that claims to be in the liberal arts tradition).

In fact, I think we have established so far that for science, as a liberal art, “objectivity” and “comprehensiveness” are fundamental characteristics that are precisely defined in science. (We need precise distinctive features for each of the disciplines, along with some fresh general terms for what they all have in common…)

Personally, I might prefer to call scientific “objectivity” something more like “experimental verification,” because the heavily laden Cartesian term “objective” too quickly calls up “subjective” as its binary opposite and its only alternative. (But I can live with it if I have to….) Every discipline, after all, has testing and verification procedures, and to that extent could be called objective. (But we don’t use the word that way. Only the evidence adduced in the sciences is usually labeled “objective,” unless I am greatly mistaken.)

Unfortunately, the formal-kinds-of-things that many disciplines must deal with aren’t always susceptible to the repeatable lab experiment as their basic verification procedure. Whenever possible, it seems to me, such will be sought as a correlative or as a secondary support. (Poststructuralist language theory, for instance, can guide the setting up of some scientific studies and be confirmed by them, as can Chomskian language theory. The experiments however cannot at this point verify one or the other approach, or the precise combination of them we should adopt, and in complex ways the theories overlap and yet remain incommensurate. This is going to take a lot of work!)

In Plato’s Ion, as we’ve seen, Socrates takes to task the first Western literary critic and theorist (the rhapsode Ion of Ephesus) for not understanding the basic formal requirements necessary for any “-ike” (pronounced “EE-kay”). Perhaps this term “ike” is too awkward for us to adopt, but techne isn’t much better, because “technical standards” or “technical competence” today does not convey the pure formal brilliance of Plato’s more incisive terminology. Since techne is translated “art” (though it includes the sciences too, as in “the liberal arts”) perhaps I should use the term “artistic standards” and “artistic competence.” Or simply “formal standards” and “formal competence”?

In the next section of the dialogue, we will see Socrates introduce the first two formal (or artistic) features that will be observable in any genuine liberal art, with a view to distinguishing the genuine art or science from mere sham and pretence.

Also in this next section of the dialogue, we will see that Socrates appears to have a very low opinion of Ion’s “artistic” or “technica”l or “formal” competence. Before long, Socrates will be questioning whether poetics (poietike) is an –ike at all. But in the meantime, we will learn that if any way of knowing is to be an ike, then it must have “formal comprehensiveness” and “formal standards of evaluation,” just like every other ike. Also, we’ll see that Socrates uses arithmetic as one of his examples! I hope you enjoy the delicious humor of this little dialogue’s repartee.

Socrates …For the rhapsode ought to interpret the mind of the poet to his hearers, but how can he interpret him well unless he knows what he means? All this is much to be envied, I repeat.

Ion Very true, Socrates; interpretation has certainly been the most laborious part of my techne: and I believe myself able to speak about Homer better than any man; and that neither Metrodorus or Lampsacus, nor Stesimbrotus of Thasos, nor Glaucon, nor anyone else who ever was, had as good ideas about Homer as I have, or as many.

Socrates I am glad to hear you say so, Ion; I see that you will not refuse to acquaint me with them.

Ion Certainly, Socrates; and you really ought to hear how exquisitely I display the beauties of Homer. I think that the Homeridae should give me a golden crown.

Socrates I shall take an opportunity of hearing your embellishments of Homer at some other time. But just now I should like to ask you a question. Does your art extend to Hesiod and Archilochus, or to Homer only?

Ion To Homer only; he is in himself quite enough.

Oh, that innocent-seeming, yet lethal little “Socratic question”! The sound you just heard was the sound of a steel trap, springing shut upon the clueless Ion of Ephesus! (Okay, an iron-age trap.)

Socrates Are there any things about which Homer and Hesiod agree?

Ion Yes; in my opinion there are a good many.

Socrates And can you interpret what Homer says about these matters better than what Hesiod says?

Ion I can interpret them equally well, Socrates, when they agree.

Socrates But what about matters in which they do not agree? For example, about divination of which both Homer and Hesiod have something to say –

Ion Very true.

Socrates Would you or a good prophet be a better interpreter of what these two poets say about say about divination, not only when they agree, but when they disagree.

Ion A prophet.

Socrates And if you were a prophet, and could interpret them where they agree, would you not know how to interpret them where they disagree?

Ion Clearly.

Socrates But how do you come to have this skill about Homer only, and not about Hesiod or the other poets? Does not Homer speak of the same themes which all other poets handle? Is not war his great argument? And does he not speak of human society and of intercourse of men, good and bad, skilled and unskilled, and of the gods conversing with one another and with mankind, and about what happens in heaven and in the world below, and the generations of gods and heroes? Are not these the themes of which Homer sings? [Here’s a place where we get an idea of what the rhapsodes said about Homer to their audiences, but it is Socrates who supplies it, sounding very much the literary critic, himself! –jlb]

Ion Very true, Socrates.

Socrates And do not the other poets sing of the same?

Ion Yes, Socrates; but not in the same way as Homer.

Socrates What, in a worse way?

Ion Yes, in a far worse.

Socrates And Homer in a better way? [Notice it is Socrates who introduces the subject of standards of evaluation, and Ion merely echoes him. Ion is very good at learning the words by rote! But can he use the formal standards and put them into action? -jlb]

Ion He is incomparably better.

Socrates And yet surely, my dear friend Ion, where many people are discussing numbers, and one speaks better than the rest, there is somebody who can judge which of them is the good speaker?

Ion Yes.

Socrates And he who judges of the good will be the same as he who judges of the bad speakers?

Ion The same.

Socrates One who knows the science of arithmetic? [Lit. The one who possesses the “techne arithmet-ike”?]

Ion Yes.

Socrates Or again, if many persons are discussing the wholesomeness of food, and one speaks better than the rest, will he who recognizes the better speaker be a different person from him who recognizes the worse, or the same?

Ion Clearly the same.

Socrates And who is he, and what is his name?

Ion The physician.

I’ll break off the passage here, and let you ponder the perennially puzzling teaching device of Socratic questioning for awhile…. And the formal features Socrates is beginning to bring into view here as being necessary for any ike…. Questions and comments?

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Wily Socrates # 2

June 25, 2007

Wily Socrates and the Witless Theorist, Episode # 2

 

[WE ARE READING PLATO’S WITTY LITTLE DIALOGUE ION, to help us freshly describe what all the arts & sciences hold in common, along with their distinctive strengths, & without succumbing to name-calling. We are fighting for truth, justice, & the American way — by asking the Greeks to mediate between the PoMos and the Geeks. Please join us! (Richard Dawkins and Terry Eagleton need not apply. You’ve had your chance.)]

For today, I’ll just issue this snippet from Plato’s wonderful dialogue named Ion. This is Socrates’ first major speech, along with my own three-part schematic for the description that Socrates gives of the techne (the “art”) of the literary critic / theorist – if there is such an art, that is….

Socrates I have often envied the profession (techne) of a rhapsode, Ion; for it is a part of your art (techne) to wear fine clothes and to look as beautiful as you can, while at the same time you are obliged to be continually in the company of many good poets, and especially of Homer, who is the best and most divine of them, and to understand his mind (dianoia, “thoughts”), and not merely learn his words by rote; all this is a thing greatly to be envied. I am sure that no man can become a good rhapsode who does not understand the meaning of the poet (“what the poet says/means”). For the rhapsode ought to interpret the mind of the poet to his hearers, but how can he interpret him well unless he knows what he means? All this is much to be envied, I repeat.

Ion Very true, Socrates; interpretation has certainly been the most laborious part of my techne: and I believe myself able to speak about Homer better than any man; and that neither Metrodorus or Lampsacus, nor Stesimbrotus of Thasos, nor Glaucon, nor anyone else who ever was, had as good ideas about Homer as I have, or as many.

We can clearly see that Socrates and Ion agree that “interpretation” is a “part” of the ike of the rhapsodes.

Rhapsod-ike is the Greek term for Ion’s art – or epiipoet-ike, “the ike of epic poetry.” And of this highly esteemed art, “interpretation . . . to his hearers is “the most laborious part” of his techne, according to Ion. And well it should be! This is the most sophisticated and comprehensive level of thinking about and knowing a given passage. This is when Ion “educates” his audience. This is why I am calling this level # 3 in my schematic, where Ion explains “to his hearers” what the passage is all about.

Earlier in Socrates’ speech, we see “learning the words by rote,” and this mental activity is contrasted with the higher analytical level of “understanding the poet’s thoughts.” (Benjamin Jowett’s translation has “mind,” but the Greek word there is dianaoia. Nous is the Greek word for mind, and dia-noia literally means what goes through the mind in the plural, so “thoughts” is a good translation.

This is how I pick out of Socrates’ speech the three levels of mental activity carried out by the rhapsode, when the rhapsode has mastered his techne, according to Socrates.

Stage One – memorize the language of a passage. This is akin to simply “dressing” our minds in the “fine clothes” and “beautiful appearance” of Homer’s ornate and polished words.

Stage Two – act out the passage by discerning the formal structure of thought in the language – or lying behind the language. After the rhapsode “learns the words by rote,” then he analyzes the speech or passage for its “thoughts,” in order to perform it effectively. Note well: there is always this ambiguity of “in” and/or “behind,” in classical Greek philosophy. The Formal Reality is somehow both immanent in the tangible physical materials that manifest it, and beyond them (transcendent). I think this is an inevitable feature of Greek “ontology,” if you will. Mathematicians and physicists today sense much the same paradox, too, when they work for a long time with the beautiful and powerful mathematics of their fields. No wonder there are many self-declared Platonists among them, who are persuaded that all possible mathematical universes must exist somewhere, or at least that the mathematical Order (in and behind the world) must be more Ultimately Real than the shifting material physical world itself. As we know, for Plato the thought-structure is always more Really Real than the “flux” of temporal “actualities.” The physical manifestations are always shifting and passing away – they are confined to temporal manifestation – but the Form-al realities remain and endure…. This is mythically imaged at times in the dialogues as the famous Platonic Heaven of the Forms. I say more below about the particular formal structure of thought in the epic speech hereafter.

Stage Three — interpret the noble thoughts of the poet to the audience. After performing a passage, apparently, rhapsodes served as educators by giving lessons to the audience from out of the epic poet’s wisdom, as shown in the passage just performed. The Homeric “Bible” had become a source of glorious history for the Greeks, and of course it contained many moving examples of good and bad behavior. Rhapsodes could move and entertain the crowd, as we’ll see, while inculcating popular notions of the prized Achaean values of valor, strategy, and “speaking and doing well.” It’s in connection with this third level, called interpretation in this particular sense, that Ion confides that no man in all of Greece has ever “had as good ideas about Homer as I have, or as many.” When Ion produced these “ideas,” they appear to have swayed the crowds and to have won many lucrative prizes for this rhapsode.

You might be wondering why I keep insisting on distinguishing Stages Two and Three, as separate mental activities, when in the speech, they may seem to be rather “run together.” You’ll see later on that I have some very good additional formal reasons for doing this. But for now,

keep in mind that Socrates is not thinking about the arts of “acting” or “directing” that Rick brought up, as we think of them, which were not formalized as arts in Plato’s day, as they are in ours. No, Stage Two – analyzing the thoughts of the speech so as to perform it well – suggests to any educated Greek-on-the-Street in Plato’s day the techne or art of rhetoric!

Rhetor-ike was taught, of course, by the dreaded Sophists, but it would also be taught by Aristotle in his school a few decades after this dialogue was written. Furthermore, keep in mind that Plato himself must be an expert in rhetoric – or else he could not have written this brilliant dialogue and others like it, with their brilliant structures of persuasive thought and arguments, and their marvelous suiting of the speeches to the characters who utter them!

The art of rhetorike is the techne that finds (“in-vents”) the “best available means” of making an argument or an effect on the hearer. To accomplish this goal (telos), the rhetor puts together a structure of thought and furnishes it with the embellishments of figurative language: the “figures of speech.” It isn’t inherently a bad techne, but the Sophists (or so Plato tells us) used their art “to make the worse appear the better cause” (Milton, PL).

So Ion does the following mental tasks as parts of his art. He 1) memorizes the speech and then 2) goes to work on analyzing the speech rhetorically and practicing its rhetorical delivery in order to perform it. (Yes, this surely would have much in common with the art an actor practices today, but it would have been thought of as rhetorical analysis and rhetorical performance among the Greeks.)

And this explains why talking about the speech “to the hearers” after the performance (i.e. # 3) needs to be carefully distinguished from (# 2) the rhetorical thinking Ion does in order to be a performer (and in itself, Ion’s thinking in # 2 is closely akin to the rhetorical thinking that Homer did to invent the speech and suit it to its speaker in the first place). Is that clear? (I’m pretty happy with it!)

In terms of level # 3, as we read on we’ll see more of what Ion probably talked about when he moved on to interpretation. And we’ll see that Socrates proposes a better, more “philosophical” way to do interpret the passages than Ion is able to do, because he is not trained and equipped to do so. This will be to take the contents of a passage (chariot racing? preparing a meal? throwing a javelin?) and calling in an expert in those technes to talk about the subject-matter! Are you yourself, Ion, an expert in all of these arts?

So this will be the argument we will be hearing, on a first reading of the dialogue, when we are attending to what the words are ostensibly saying in their plainest, most immediate sense. This is a crucial first reading, because in it we will be able to observe the theory of the techne (regardless of whether the techne happens to be an art or a science) that undergirded the new vision of the liberal arts and sciences, the vision that came to life in the schools of Plato and Aristotle in the decades following this dialogue in the 4th century BCE. The theory we will be learning from Socrates as he schools Ion will continue as the theory of education (and the theory of knowing) in the West for 2000 years.

Then, with the rise of science in the 17th century (and the infamous Cartesian paradigm!), a new theory of knowing will begin to emerge, that of scientific rationalism as it was understood and practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries in the West. Over in part 4 of my lit theory course (under Pages) we are discussing whether the 20th century modified or qualified the paradigm for scientific knowing in any significant way, with Relativity and QM. (Scientists are holding the line, so far, that the “paradigm change” is mostly in the imaginations of humanists and philosophers who don’t understand the scientific theories very well. I am trying to say that the 20th century was a critique of modern scientific rationalism in every field – not a demolishing of science or of rationality but a more sophisticated and rigorous grasp of limitations that might further the arts and sciences by making them more humble to relation to one another…. To me, this is the essence of postmodernism, as least as I know it from the Continent in poststructuralism and phenomenology.)

In the next “Wily Socrates” post, we’ll see Socrates introducing the first two distinctive features that (for Plato) distinguish a genuine art-or-science from a merely sham profession of knowledge and expertise. Does the exposition so far make sense to you? Any comments or questions?

(And all you humanists and lit theorists and former students of mine out there! Why are you letting me dangle like this, all by myself, “turning, turning in the wind” like an abandoned Richard Nixon, while science-guys throw darts at me? Just kidding…. You don’t know the science well enough to help me out? Well, for heavens sake. We’ve given you enough links to brush up on QM and we’ve got really articulate science-guys here to answer your questions. Don’t be timid about speaking up, and QM is fascinating. Start here.)

Wily Socrates and the Witless Theorist: A Parable — Episode #1

June 20, 2007

[WE ARE READING PLATO’S WITTY LITTLE DIALOGUE ION, to help us freshly describe what all the arts & sciences hold in common, along with their distinctive strengths, & without succumbing to name-calling. We are fighting for truth, justice, & the American way — by asking the Greeks to mediate between the PoMos and the Geeks. Please join us! (Richard Dawkins and Terry Eagleton need not apply. You’ve had your chance.)]

One fine day, on an ancient street leading into Athens, Socrates spots an acquaintance arriving from another city. It is Ion, the great Homeric rhapsode, who is no doubt planning to participate in the splendid Athenean festival called the Panathenaea. We hear Socrates hail his unlucky friend, and we begin to entertain a delightful suspicion that Socrates is up to his old tricks. Of course, we think, he hopes to ensnare Ion in a conversation about what Ion actually knows….


Socrates: Welcome, Ion. Are you from your native city of Ephesus?
Ion: No, Socrates; but from Epidaurus, where I attended the festival of Aesculapius.
Socrates: Indeed! Do the Epidaurians have a contest of rhapsodes in (that god’s) honor?
Ion: Oh yes; and (contests) of other kinds of music [mousike].
Socrates. And were you one of the competitors; and did you succeed?
Ion. I – we – obtained the first prize of all, Socrates.
Socrates. Well done; now we must win another victory, at the Panathenaea.
Ion. It shall be so, please heaven.
Socrates. I have often envied the profession [techne] of a rhapsode, Ion; for it is a part of your art [techne] to wear fine clothes and to look as beautiful as you can, while at the same time you are obliged to be continually in the company of many good poets, and especially of Homer, who is the best and most divine of them, and to understand his mind, and not merely learn his words by rote; all this is a thing greatly to be envied….

Okay now, here we go! The Greek word rhaps-ode means “a stitcher of song,” and men like Ion belonged to the illustrious guild of highly trained performers who descended from the glorious Achaean bards of old. These men were not themselves poets, but they memorized, acted out, and then interpreted passages from the epics, often before very large crowds at festivals held (as you can see) in honor of various gods by Greek city-states in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. (Homer was roughly 750 BCE; the Trojan War 12th century BCE.)

So what we have here in the person of Ion is “the very first literary critic” to make an appearance in the texts of Western thought. And given that the Greeks were pellucid theorists in every area, he is supposed to be the very first literary theorist too, if he is to be regarded as anything at all, in the way of an educator and thinker. In current terms, Ion is, let us say, the humanities professor, and now he is going to be examined by the hard-headed thinker who ironically claims to know nothing at all, Socrates.

Let’s remember that this Socrates has often been credited for the birth of the “arts-and-sciences education,” and for the birth of “the scientific spirit” in the West. We are told (by Plato) that he liked to claim that he was only a “midwife” to ideas. He was the one, he said, who could help other persons to “conceive” new formal concepts, and then, he was the one who could help them to distinguish between the live births and the mere “wind eggs” (see Theaetetus). So it would actually be Plato and Aristotle who established the first schools for the liberal arts and who worked out in detail the theorizing of the arts and sciences as a robust pluralism of valid disciplines, in the decades following Plato’s writing of this very early dialogue (c. 390-380).

[But notice, there’s an ambiguity here about whether I am saying these things about the historical Socrates, or about the “Socrates” we have come to know in Plato’s dialogues, since Plato’s “Socrates” is the main instrument whereby we think we know the man and are able to measure his enormous significance in Western thought. Here’s the inescapable paradox or antinomy: Plato both acknowledged Socrates as the true origin of the new approach to knowing and at the same time Plato made him that origin. This is no equivocation either. These kinds of mutually self-constituting relationship between all the different Socrates – Zenophon wrote “Socratic dialogues” too, as did others – or between “Socrates” and the influence of Socrates are always involved in our cognitive knowing of all linguistically-mediated identities. We can’t know exactly who the historical Socrates was (is?) directly, without the mediation of various observations of him. So we evaluate with rigorous formalisms very carefully all the conflicting reports and their agendas and we are still left with significant indeterminacy — and yet we know we are dealing with an identity so strong that it is has been recognizable as itself for 2400 years. Now, if you’ll just bear with me for one step further, think about the actual historical Socrates, as he was known to himself and his contemporaries, before there were any written reports to obscure the phenomenon. Again, his identity – for himself and for them – was just as mediated and mutally self-constituted. Everyone was observing him and his behaviors, including himself, and everyone had a different and evolving model, and interpretation of that model. They are widely conflicting ones! After all, the citizens of Athens voted to execute Socrates as a harmfulinfluence on young minds, just 10-15 years before this dialogue was written, right there in Athens, where his student Plato is now returned and announcing, in part through this dialogue, that he is taking up a philosophical way of life in the memory of his dead master. The question of how we get at Socrates is no throw-away or dismissive question. This is the heart of where phenomenology and poststructuralism have gotten us, in dealing with the play of (self)representations that build up for us reflexively the identity of what we perceive as we attempt to know it, in exquisitely precise and exact and yet still limiting ways…. We in semiotic theory have had to formalize this, first, and now all the disciplines have to distinguish the problem of Socrates from the problem of the “physical object” in science. Great differences, yes. Some similarities too…. That was a digression!]

Socrates was famous for his skepticism about unsubstantiated claims to knowledge and wisdom, especially on the part of teachers (sophists) who expected to be paid for their services. (This always makes me wince.) Apollo’s oracle may have declared Socrates to be the wisest man in Greece, but Socrates insisted that what the god must have meant was that he was the only man in Greek who knew that he (in fact) knew nothing at all. Everyone else was less wise, because they were sure they did know something, when they didn’t!

Accordingly, this very funny little dialogue will feature Socrates examining Ion about his exalted techne, his “art” or “profession.” And Ion, as we’ve already gathered, will not be bashful about proclaiming the virtues of his techne – or rather, as it turns out, proclaiming his own virtues. Very quickly I think we begin to gather that Socrates’ own approval of Ion’s art may be somewhat qualified, especially when the wily ironist describes Ion’s techne as requiring Ion “to wear fine clothes and to look as beautiful as you can.” The same irony can be heard behind Socrates’ subsequent statement that Ion’s art requires him to go beyond merely “learning the words by rote” – so that he is able in truth “to understand Homer’s mind.” Both statements call our attention, slyly but ineluctably, to the gap that may exist between appearances and reality. We are reminded that what always matters, for Socrates, is the substance behind the show. (Unanswerably, the historical Socrates demonstrated this difference best in the manner of his own death).

We shouldn’t be too surprised, therefore, when this dialogue turns into a primer on what constitutes a legitimate art or science, and how we might go about distinguishing between sham and the genuine article. (Perhaps at some future point down the road, when we’ve discussed the entire theory, we might apply Socrates’ methods of detection to the 1996 Sokal hoax, in which a scientist was attempting, as he saw it, to expose a good deal of postmodern cultural theorizing as a sham enterprise.)

It’s important to be clear about the Greek word techne, from which we derive our “technical” and “technology.” Techne was the most common word the Greeks used for referring to any art or science, and also to what we regard as very humble crafts or skills, because these were all viewed as formal and formalized enterprises, ranging from the humblest to the most sublime. Technes, therefore, included techne arithmetike, or arithmetic, a highly formalized, highly theoretical discipline that would of course be greatly honored in Plato’s school. In practice, the word “techne” was often dropped by Greek speakers, and so this discipline was simply called arithmet-ike. Notice, that presence of the suffix “-ike” (pronounced EE-kay) on the end of a noun referred to the formal study and knowledge of that formal kind of thing (in this case, “counting”). Examples: phys-ike, poiet-ike, log-ike, grammat-ike, rhetor-ike, mus-ike, and so on, yielding such modern words as physics, poetics, logic, music, and the like.

Socrates is going to school Ion on what any “ike” has got to have, in order to be a genuine formalized way of knowing. [We don’t think of sandal-making or raft-building as formalized disciplines and hence as ways of thinking and knowing, but I think the modern world would be far better off if we did. And for the Greeks, all the way back to Homer and before, every way of knowing a formal kind of thing, every technical skill confers a “power” (or ergon) upon its knower, as we’ll see later on in this very same dialogue.]

So when Socrates talks about techne, bear in mind that he is thinking not only of “arts,” but also of “sciences.” And Plato is thinking about whether or not Ion’s so-called techne deserves a place in the liberating curriculum of the new form of education for young citizens. [We’ll be seeing that knowing for Pl & A was always formal, because it was always knowing of a kind of thing. The formality of the kind-of-thing governs the formality of the human attempts to come to know it and hence to produce it and evaluate it. This is true even in the case of the humblest kinds of human capacities to master “the elegant formalities of things.” That’s my phrase for how the lucidity of the Greek mind views the world, as a panaorama of all of the formal kinds engaged in their characteristic formal activities. This is true in the vast and spacious and utterly clear and distinct world of the Homeric epics, where you really can “see forever.”]

One final comment on this first passage. Plato and Aristotle were educators first and devoted thinkers second. (Like their master, Socrates. Like anyone following the way of philosophy, to their minds.) They knew they needed technical vocabulary and precise definitions for advanced thought, but they were more interested in teaching or provoking others to follow some of the fluid gestures of thought and to learn to spot some of the formal relationships that recur, than in pinning down a hard-and-fast technical vocabulary as if for its own sake.

This seems strange to us, because we have become great sticklers for correctness, ever since the rise of science in the 17th century. [For example, the 18th century Enlightenment was the great age for establishing a standardizing spelling. To this day, I cannot spell (sorry’s abut Planck’s constant) and I take great comfort from my Renaissance manuscripts, in which Shakespeare and Donne spell even their own names differently each time they write them down, not to mention all the other words. Literature and thought somehow managed to thrive in the Renaissance, despite these in-significant kinds of indeterminacies….]

So it is very important for us to loosen up a little and flex our mind-muscles and encourage our thoughts to leap and flow by analogy and “homology,” when reading Greek philosophical texts. Aristotle said that the true mark of genius – and he meant in every field, not in literature – was metaphor. He meant the ability to spot similar arrangements and to see in some unrelated structure or model a possible insight into a different state of affairs. (See that Eugene Wigner essay!) To see that a formal relationship might be isomorphic yet differently situated on successive levels of structuring was thrilling to them. Mathematicians and physicists will understand this very well!

So, the upshot of this fluidity in using terms, so as to follow the movements of thought without being tied down to a highly specific technical vocabulary, at least when dealing with students and “tricking” them into using their minds, as in a dialogue, is that the words techne and episteme were used interchangeably by Plato and often by Aristotle. On the other hand, the word episteme could be used to refer to the more purely “theoretical” disciplines (such as geometria and arithmetic), in distinction from the technes, viewed as the “productive” arts. But they were all ikes. When the distinction was in view, though, the Greeks thought of medicine as a techne because it produced salves and medicines and dietary recommendations, just as a sandal-maker produced sandals and a poet produced poems. But geometers and mathematicians produce purely theoretical formalisms.

Later on, the Romans would translate episteme into scientia and translate techne into ars (artis). And so the standard liberal arts curriculum to form young minds would become (later on) the Seven Liberal Arts (three arts and four sciences), with philosophia above them at their pinnacle, last reached, but first in importance, as the most interdisciplinary and comprehensive level of thinking and knowing. A meta-level certainly, but also the most existentially and politically relevant, for here is where the individual who has been trained up to the beauties of FORM has to decide whether to live generously and responsibly by these higher realities and principles (large mindedly if you will) or fall back into stupid self-interest and greed and cynicism, from which a liberal education attempts to liberate us!

For Plato and Aristotle, of course, the highest branch of philosophia is the one that contemplates the highest things, things that are first in importance and realness, the divine, by which they meant formal reality taken in itself (immanent and transcendent). Theology or “first philosophy” was therefore the final highest stage of the ascent of the knowing mind’s education all the way through the Renaissance. The vita contemplativa, therefore, was always higher than the vita activa (the active, political, “doing” life of citizens in a polis or city-state), though both were vital to what education was all about for 2000 years, until the 17th and 18th centuries, when a big shake-up of these older schemas began. (I think everyone should read and grapple with Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, a book of fundamental importance for thinking about modernity and the development of totalitarianisms, earth-alienation, and world-alienation, even though I fear that it is impossibly written, in her heavily Germanized “English.”) I’m sorry, I got off on a sermon for the last two paragraphs.

Anyway, as we’ll see next time in Plato’s Ion, Socrates’ hilarious maneuvers and outrageous high jinx will vividly enumerate the distinctive features that must belong to a genuine techne, but just remember that this techne does not mean (here) an “art” as opposed to a science. (We must stop ourselves and retrain our mental reflexes here.) No, Socrates’ goal is better characterized as an effort to define the nature of ike, more generally, as it manifests itself in both arts and sciences.

In a magnificent later Platonic dialogue called Theaetetus, Socrates will explore the question “What is episteme?” – while he is talking with two promising lads who exhibit the truly inquiring minds that are the best hope for the future of any polis or city-state. “What is episteme?” is usually translated “What is knowledge?” but the word episteme frequently occurs in the plural, and is translated “forms of knowledge” or “kinds of knowledge.” Episteme is the common ingredient in every one of the epistemes (and the technes). So we use episteme to “know,” that is, to study the formalities of every formal kind of thing. But the episteme of episteme itself …. “What is episteme” in essentia? — that question (as we’ll see) belongs to epistemo-logy — the logos of the episteme (or the techne)…The dialogue called Ion goes a long ways towards answering that question…

Let’s Read a Platonic Dialogue Together — Socrates and a Lit Theorist duking it out in ancient Athens…

June 19, 2007

Okay folks, here’s what we’ll do. I propose that we read together Plato’s early dialogue named Ion. (I’ve been working on this little gem for years.) Every literary theorist in the world and most philosophers know this witty and amusing drama, because in it Socrates teaches a teacher of literature that he doesn’t really know anything at all. (At least, ostensibly, this is what Socrates does. Watch out for that wicked, wicked, wicked Platonic irony…)

Anyhow, Socrates proceeds to deflate Ion’s pretentions as a literateur by explaining (and acting out quite hilariously) what it means to possess an actual expertise in any genuine art or science.

In doing so, Plato was setting the stage for bringing into existence, right there in Athens, and only 10-15 years after the citizens of Athens had put Socrates to death, the very first Western academies for the liberal arts. (Founded by himself and later by his own best student Aristotle, in the decades following his writing of this dialogue.)

Therefore, Socrates in this dialogue will show us the original theory of rigorous thinking and knowing (dialectic) in the West. It was this theory of knowing that undergirded the idea of “the liberal arts and sciences” for 2000 years, even to founding the great medieval universities and fostering the Copernican revolution and the Renaissance.

We will see Socrates explaining the specific features that must be present for any discipline to call itself a genuine way of knowing. Then Socrates will hold Ion’s claims to possessing real knowledge up to these standards — and find him hopelessly wanting. Still, in my humble opinion, this dialogue is finally not the put-down of the poets that it is often taken to be. But it IS without doubt a theoretically cogent and compelling putdown of sham and pretension in the liberal arts (and Socrates gives us a universal Bull-Sham Detecting Machine for identifying it!).

I will present each consecutive section of the dialogue, at the very beginning of each post. I won’t leave anything out — it’s all great stuff! I’ll explain words and other items and make some points, and then you can tackle it and raise all the questions you wish to. I’ll feature these Socrates enstallments on my front page, though I hope we can continue other comment-threads that are going here and here and here and also here.

I’m confident that we can produce two results by doing this. 1) We can work out some fresh new vocabulary for specifying the great strengths of science (along with its limitations) in contrast to the strengths of the semiotic/cultural studies fields (along with their limitations), without denigrating either. Socrates presents a strong view for the pluralism of the liberal arts!

And 2), I’ll be able to explain what Derrida’s “deconstruction” was about, and specify precisely how it was akin to Kurt Godel’s accomplishments for mathematics, and yet perhaps goes further in some ways. (Who knows, other oft-maligned PoMo thinkers may come into view as well.)

But first, we’ll have to go all the way through the dialogue’s arguments to the very end, to establish what features of thinking constitute any genuine discipline, and why the disciplines must nonetheless turn out to be quite significantly different, even in the ways they think. (Kinda paradoxical.)

Then we can step back and reconsider the dialogue as a whole. That’s when it can function for us as a kind of “model” for theory (in the mathematical sense Pseudonym specifies) and for the interplay of different kinds of theories.

That’s when I can really show you what Plato’s Ion is bringing into focus for us, on a meta-level (if you’ll allow me that word), and we’ll have a precise model for talking together about what both Godel and Derrida were doing — and all of those fascinating new issues thus brought into our collective ken….

(Did Plato anticipate Godel and Derrida? Did he, perhaps, enact some enduring formal realities that underly what Godel and Derrida did? Well, you know, most philosophers don’t think Alfred North Whitehead was overstating the case, when he said that all subsequent Western thought has been nothing but “footnotes to Plato.”)

I want to thank the scientists who have said recently (in the comment-threads at right) that they have felt, on occasion, when talking with humanists, that the humanists were trying to say something important, even though they couldn’t grasp what it was. This is the most encouraging thing I’ve heard in ages, because it is so honest. And it is equally baffling to humanists, I think, when scientists react to us as though we are attacking or even “abusing” science, when we are so enthusiastic about the precise and rigorous constructions involved in all theories and facts. It’s hard for us to see 1) why you don’t get it, and especially 2) why you are so offended and hurt. We didn’t mean it the way that it obviously must sound to you, but why does it sound that way to you…

This is not an easy conversation, in part because scientists tend to be more the kinds of persons who go from point A to point B and want clear nuggetlike results. [Rereading this today, geesh, this sound patronizing. If so, I retract it! There is some difference in what we’re trained to focus on in a given situation — that’s what I mean. I loved the joke about the difference between mathematicians and physicists! jlb] We humanists are the kinds of persons who “tell all the truth/ But tell it slant — / Success in circuit lies….” as Emily Dickinson put it so aptly. We like to go the long way around. To tarry with the process and ponder its implications. We go for the wavy and elusive “probability structures” that end up doing things that simply blow your mind.

Maybe if we can talk to each other, we can solve the wave-particle duality!

Anyway, the best preparation for this grand adventure would be to click here and read (if you haven’t already) Rick’s suggestion that I “tell a story” about Derrida. And then my response, the one where I go on and on (“the squid disappearing into a cloud of ink?”) about how one might use Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorums as a kind of model to characterize Derrida’s project, in a preliminary kind of way.

At least that response starts to make more precise the point that Derrida’s real philosophical contribution is no more “negative” and “destructive” than Godel’s mathematical contributions were. They both represent an attempt to come to terms with a real state of affairs, one that puts an end in some ways to some kinds of hopes, but also carries our knowing forward in profound ways.

So, stay tuned for the next post, “Socrates Deflates the First Literary Theorist (# 1).”

—————–

AND HERE’S HOW THAT EXCHANGE (YOUR HOMEWORK) BEGINS, with the scientist first….

“Janet, you said: “We postmodernists are always complaining about the Cartesian paradigm, but to very little effect, it seems.”

I hope thus does not come across as too blunt, but I would think that dense theory is never going to win anybody over. What you need is a story, a “myth” if you will. A story that will capture in a narrative the meaning of your post-modernism.

We have discovered a planet orbiting the star HD 209458.

What is the post-modern story of this discovery? I assume it in not “a bunch of influential guys found it in their interest to invent a planet around another star”, which, is seems, is the “post-modernist” story as it is being actually told to us science types.

Or, more simply (at least in my physics background sort of way), is there, according to post -modernist understanding, a planet around HD 209458? Is there in fact, in reality, in an actual physical made-of-atoms sort of way, a planet around HD 209458? A planet that was there before we discovered it?

Janet Says:
June 17th, 2007 at 9:00 pm I think you are absolutely right that I need a story, a “myth,” a narrative to explain what Derridean deconstruction is about! And I’ve just been writing one, just today, in fact. (Now I have three posts in the works! This is just great — at least it is great for me! Thanks to everyone!)

However, Rick, your suggestion is still somewhat ironic! That’s because you say “this dense theory” won’t ever cut it, for explaining Derrida. So try a story… Now coming from a scientist, that is pretty wonderfully funny! Isn’t it? Even though it is apt.

But what about your own “dense theory”? Quantum mechanics. I think QM is a good analogy (up to a point) to OUR dense theory, and the range of interpretations that are involved in it, after the “turn” from structuralism to post-structuralism. That formal turn (1960s in France) should be compared to the formal shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian worldviews in physics. In the sense that the one prepared for the other….(more)

Things Get Weirder in QM and We Break Through on Scientist-Humanist Conversations…

June 18, 2007

Hi’s given us a great link to a post describing this new wave/particle experiment, and you be sure now, all you innumerate humanists, that you also see the article about what it all means, given just below it, in the second comment. (The scientists will set us straight, no doubt, but don’t spoil all our fun!) We’ve also made progress on solving the conversational dilemma in our own conversations at right….

Theological Reflection on Fathering and Mothering from von Balthazar

June 18, 2007

Please go over to land of unlikeness and read the Father’s Day post there. Whether or not you are a theist, whether you are a scientist or a literature person, it will be worth your time. And it hints at the kind of work a poststructuralist like Lacan or Kristeva is theorizing or a sophisticated Christian theologian like Hans Urs von Balthasar. Thanks.

Quantum Indeterminacy and Unresolved Science/Reality Questions Show the Greatness of Science As a Liberal Art

June 15, 2007

Thanks, folks! We’re enjoying three or four very interesting conversations here at the moment ( in my opinion). But you can’t see any of them, can you? It’s very sad.

Lamentably, the pundit was quite correct who complained that blogs are “inhospitable to genuine conversation.” Their very layout seems to undermine their most cherished aim. Paradoxical, isn’t it?

But we do seem to manage, nonetheless, to carry on, even if our exchanges are hidden away at the bottoms of very old posts here or here or over in one of the Pages on the right, in #4 in of my lit theory course…. Still, given that some of you are scientists, and some are literary or theoretical folk like me, I’m going to help both groups locate conversation threads they might enjoy, and give some links in case you need some background.

One comment thread (at #4) deals with the “pandora’s box” that is quantum mechanics, specifically as illustrated by Schrodinger’s famous cat, who is either shot by a gun, or not shot by a gun, or is both shot by a gun and not. Now, scientists get very grumpy when “New Agers” take “quantum entanglement” and run with it, but the stuff is very weird.

As a semiotic theorist, I’m fascinated, because quantum indeterminacy poses so exquisitely some of the problems semiotic theorists also encounter in thinking about the relationship between reality and our formalized descriptions of reality. These paradoxes and puzzling limitations advance our knowledge, even as they raise (precise) questions about how easy or even how possible it is to separate what we observe from the limitations built in to the very methods that enable us to produce the observations.

Now hang on, I’m not leaping from Heisenberg to “relativism.” This is the whole beautiful thing about the truly great poststructuralist thinkers. They are as precise as Bohrs and Heisenberg are, or Bohm or Penrose, and there are REAL problems they are working with, and in both fields (science and poststructuralism) the problems can be formalized precisely and explored and argued about as we look for better formalizations, while standing on the shoulders of giants.

Jacob Bronowski interpreted the QM indeterminacy (and related discoveries) in this form: that if we genuinely desire to advance in knowledge of what we already know and of what we do not yet know, then we must give up the distorting ideal of methodological certainty. (He explicitly associates the insistence that our methods lead to certainty with Fascism, just as poststructuralists see it as fueling every kind of fundamentalism.)

This is the prize we receive for abandoning an absolutist world, however: the vigorous and satisfying and never-ending practice of critical thought and a variety of paradigms, which confers upon us the freedom to take up positions about truth that are nonetheless qualified and open to future developments. (So reminiscent of Michael Polanyi.)

But an absolutist world is the same thing, formally speaking, as a world that claims there is only one authoritative method for arriving at truth, and hence only one truth. Yet this is the message, a profoundly uncritical and anti-liberal and obscurantist message, delivered every day by dogmatic science bloggers who need to study the beautiful nature of their science and accept its limits as well as its astonishing rigor. It is the uncritical and uninformed way they HOLD their method (their blind faith in its absolute powers) that makes them fundamentalists, just as biblical fundamentalists HOLD biblical texts (read in one monlithic way) as their only authoritative means to (once again) certainty.

We have to resist this temptation to absolutism! Here’s where we need Socrates and the art of thinking called dialectics. Truths have to be tried against other truths before we can even know any of them as the truths they are. We have to experience a wonderfully effective method, and then experience another, completely different, wonderfully effective method. (And then another…) This is what the GE part of the liberal arts and sciences is supposed to be all about.

And how can there be many wonderfuly effective (“liberating”) methods? Because “reality” has so many aspects and dimensions and complexities, and each of them deserves its own discipline. I put reality in quotes because science (being such a profound way of knowing) profoundly raises many questions about the realtionships between reality and science (or any sharply focused instrument for knowing).

To judge from millions of comments repeated over and over again by science bloggers every day, you would think there is only one truth, one method, and no problem about “reality” in science at all! So I take comfort from a 2006 essay co-authored by three physicists (associated with the Institute For Advanced Study at Princeton), who tell us, Do not believe any scientist who tries to tell you that the problem of reality in science is settled. (They give as examples three very different positions, each held by one of them, and they call these views fundamentalist, secularist, and mystical.) Or read Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose debating so thoughtfully. Hawking, a positivist, says “I don’t care about reality because I don’t know what it is.” He just wants maths that make accurate predictions. You begin to see how doing science on the one hand and faith positions about science on the other are different kinds of critters!

So I have a treat for you, if you are “just an innumerate humanist,” as I’ve been called! Go read Sean Carroll’s gorgeous post on quantum indeterminacy, using A Nice Little Puppy Sleeping in Box instead of that poor ole dead/alive cat — and there’s no violence in it, either. For the more “numerate” readers, Hi offers an excellent link to the “double slit experiment” (but sorry, it offers no cats or dogs or domestic pets of any kind).

 

Of course, I should also mention that my once-upon-a-time student Jennifer Ouelette has also written about this kitty in Black Boxes and Quantum Cats, her stunning collection of great columns and posts she’s written as a science educator. I’m blown away by her energy and acumen, but then, long ago she was a supercharged Falcon editer (and I was her college newspaper adviser), so I should have known she would go off to the Big Apple and never quit until she had made her own way there.

(But hey, now, in all the conversation at #4, with all that stuff about the cat and Copenhagen — yes, I am thrilled that some of you read the section, to see if I could explain Derrida! But I have just realized that the genuine explanation of Derrida and his “trace” is in Part # 3, and unfortunately, Part #4 simply alludes back to it… So would you mind reading Part # 3 instead…. I guess I AM an innumerate humanist… “I’m sorry, so sorry…..”)

Socrates was perfectly right. Once you allow yourself to take method questions (in all the arts and sciences) seriously and work through some of them, you end up gentler, nicer to be around, and even quite a bit wiser — wiser because you used to think that you knew more than you did — and now perhaps you know that you don’t!

I study this fascinating stuff all the time, in science and elsewhere, because I am a (semiotic or cultural or literary) theorist, and we are interested in formalisms of all kinds pertaining to language and cultural meanings. And these formalisms all come back to deflate our pretentions to facile knowing, even of ourselves. Most especially of ourselves. Here’s where theology and psychoanalytic theory hit home especially hard. Like the other disciplines, this effect is “liberating.” That’s what “the liberal arts and sciences” means.

 

 

How I Explain Derrida… or quit bagging on poststructuralism

June 9, 2007

Well, I’ve done it now. I actually volunteered on a science blog to “explain” Derrida! (I’m sure they aren’t as excited about this as I am.) I brazenly pointed out that it isn’t so easy a thing to do as it is for Dawkins and Dennett to explain (so brilliantly) their neo-Darwinian biology and all its new tools of thought. Why? Because D & D use the same language for thinking that the general public in England and North America does: the exact same kind of rationalist-empiricist systems of exploratory assumptions that have belonged to the British and American educational system and the English language itself for the past couple of centuries.

Poststructuralism requires learning different languages for thought, from the ground up. Think of it as a non-Euclidean geometry, okay? Think of it as a bold, thought-experimental, “over-simplified idealism,” such as Dennett lauds in science, okay? (My own explanatory schema is over-simplified, that is; not the originals.) The point is, theorizing in every field has its own techniques and its own evidences. It took me decades to become fluent in the languages of structuralism and phenomenology that underpin poststructuralist theory. So how in the world can I explain this foreign “language” in clear and simple terms? That’s just not how we learn languages! But this system of thought yeilds brilliant results in dealing with all kinds of human meaning-systems.

Well, I try to explain what’s behind “deconstruction” in the very best ways I can think of, but I realize that I am asking an awful lot of my readers. For one thing, that they genuinely care about the idea of a liberal arts education! And by the way, science is fundamentally a rigorous way of knowing about the physical structure of the natural world. But it is also a human meaning-system. A lot of “reality” is very complex, in just this way. That’s why different aspects of reality are fruitfully explored by different disciplinary methods yeilding very different formalizations. Okay now, the Derrida stuff is contained in Section 4 under Pages on the right. I’m just going to send you over there. (If #4 intrigues, read Section 3 too.) If nobody goes over there and reads and comments, I guess I’ll have to flood my front page with it. Remember, please, that I am giving a very simplified version of a enormously sophisticated way of analyzing language. It is not the common linguistic approach taken in our own Chomskian U.S. (Have you read that amazing New Yorker article on Chomsky and the Amazonian tribe yet?)

By the way, polite and thoughtful conversation (however saucy!) such as you’ll see over at Rob Knop’s above-referenced science blog is welcome. Anything like “the Jerry Springer Show on science blogs” that I lamented about in an earlier post will be graciously deleted. (Wonderfully, I’ve never gotten anything of that kind here.)

Poverty, Peace-making, Postmodernism, and the Heart-breaking Jerry Springer Show on Science Blogs?

June 6, 2007

            I haven’t posted for awhile. I’ve been visiting other blogs and doing a bit of writing on those sites, and it has made me sad, all over again. What Bethany just said in her comment (thank you), along with the courteous and thoughtful comments from the science side (Gavin and Hi) have given me much-needed comfort.  

           I’ve been depressed by the way that otherwise wonderful science blogs turn into the Jerry Springer Show the minute any mention of religious faith comes up.  And I’ve been thinking hard about it. And also, I’ve been discouraged by the scornful dismissals of postmodern theory on all sides, by scientists and (often) by thoughtful theology blogs as well. 

            I love science, theology, theory.  They are endlessly challenging, insightful, brilliant, nuanced, precise…. And I am sooo tired of these arguments, of hearing the same narrow-minded positions proclaimed over and over again.  Lately, I find myself obsessed with the word “irenic.” It means “peaceable,” or “contributing to peace.” (I can’t find it in my trusty American heritage Dictionary but it comes from the Greek word for peace and an early Christian bishop was named Irenaeus. Help me out, someone?)

           Irenic (eirenic?) interventions are something we all really need these days. I was pondering this — really,  it’s true — even before Bethany wrote her comment here on this same topic.  

           And I’ve been thinking about “the beautiful,” as when human minds working together in a disciplinary community come up with new and better ways of formalizing “the elegant formalities of things,” whose beauty and startling intelligibility started the liberal arts among the ancient Greeks. 

         And about “the humble human desire simply to know” (seen as a profoundly spiritual response to life and the natural world, undergirding both science and religion, in  John Haught’s profound book, Science & Religion: From Conflict to Conversation, 1995).  As the Greek philosophers used to say: “The beautiful things are difficult.”

           Everywhere I go on the blogosphere, mostly to science or theology blogs, I  find thoughtful, perceptive, and often compassionate writing going on, and  genuine intellectual excitement.  But I also find people slinging stereotypes and derogatory language and (especially) amazingly dogmatic and narrow simplifications of all kinds, back and forth. I am so tired of refutation for its own sake. (The Sophists, anyone?)

            I think I am seeing that for me, my own work needs to be eirenic and to express the richness and beauty all of the genuine avenues of thought that have so enriched my own life journey: physics, the history of science, linguistics and literary theory, theism and theology, and the literature and philosophy from the Greeks, medievals, and Renissance thinkers.

             Hi is not the only person to have noticed my animus against the Cartesian paradigm, for instance (a viewpoint separating mind and matter, which has hurt me deeply in my life). But my animus has got to go! I have to stop writing polemically. (My former students will be disbelieving, at this point, I am sure!)

              I started this weblog conversation hoping to raise some interest in the lecture sessions on Plato and Aristotle (and on later theorists of “the literary fiction”) over on the right under “Pages.” But now, I want to recast all of that material, in order to place it in the context of this current American debate, and to direct it to speaking peaceably to the (rather vicious) conflicts between science and religion, and between  science and “cultural studies” (all the fields that deal with social and linguistic structures).

            I’m a theist, I’m a student of science, and I’m a poststructuralist thinker (because of an extensive training in continental linguistics) — I have three feet planted firmly in all three camps(!)  I don’t want to be polarized and polarizing, I refuse to get angry (God help me!), and I have read and listened sympathetically to all these communities of thought for decades. Most of all, I believe in the vision of the liberal arts and sciences! (That is: no one single kind of formalization works for all the  subject-matters humans desire to know about and to have a deeper contact with. )

              So I’m going to ask thoughtful and peaceable individuals from all the camps to “read some text with me,” as my grandfather would say…. One of the funniest and  wittiest of Plato’s dialogues, the one called “Ion,” in which the whole long history of conflict between “philosophy” (i.e. reason)  and “poetry” began.  Plato stages the first-ever debate between the “lit-crit” types and the science-geeks…. 

              I think the results will surprise all sides!

              Most of all, I want to re-introduce Palto’s original theory of the arts and sciences, or “what makes a way of knowing rigorous and legitimate, deserving of study by any thoughtful citizen who want to be a free and self-determining member of the city-state?” How do we evaluate any discipline, taking its different subject-matter seriously but also holding it to high standards of rigor?  This is precisely what Plato and Aristotle worked out, and it founded the great universities and worked for 2000-plus years.

           Ever since the rise of science in the 17th and 18th centuries, in the Modern West, the arts and sciences have been divided against themselves, into two categories:  the”objective” (or “hard”) sciences and the “subjective” (or “fuzzy-wuzzy” —  “soft”-headed) arts.

             Yes, there are many differences, fascinating ones, between various fields, and science is remarkable in its own right, but there is not only one kind of knowledge and truth, because there is not only one subject-matter.  Everyone who’s studied this knows it, including the scientists, but it seems perfectly unknown to the scads of current debaters who are so heatedly abusing one another. Doesn’t anyone take courses on this?

             But I’m not going to rant, am I? I’m going to explain, irenically.             

             Maybe the older educational theory, which motivated such passionately dedicated thinking for about 2000 years in the West,  could serve once again as a useful and refreshing intervention, at our own moment in history. (Those older thinkers weren’t such slouches, after all.)

             If the various warring camps with their fortress mentalities could be distracted, entertained, and engaged by another way of looking at human knowing, one that offers some common ground but also some lucid distinctions, mightn’t this help? We could do with some fresh vocabulary; a new heuristic model, as Einstein would say (his 1905 papers).

             I think maybe it’s time for all the irenic people to stand up and say, we’re tired of all the yelling and name-calling, and we’re not going to do this anymore. We’re going to talk to each other.  We’re going to find some paradigms that might help us understand and evaluate each other more fairly and generously. More liberally.

             Most of all, maybe we’re going to stay faithful to our cherished disciplinary communities, by humbly trying to explain what is best in them, but we are also going to accept and humbly own the bad parts of our traditions. (Postmodern thought shows exactly how and why you can’t have a pure positivity; there are always the unpredictable shadow sides that emerge, because of the very nature of human thought structures themselves. This does NOT mean that science “is merely socially-constructed.” Lacan, for example, emphasizes the “objectivity” of science .) 

              Instead of flinching and denying, we are going to admit and study the many misuses of what we most deeply love, which have occurred now and in the past (whether it is science, religion,  postmodernism,  the Enlightenment, or all of the above). 

             If we can stop being so defensive, and try to look on all things with equanimity, and even magnanimity, then Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle would all stand up and cheer! 

                   Now I’ll sign off, with just a couple of long-overdue mentions. 

                 1) I realize that readers, especially Hi, have brought up some very fundamental issues of fairness and self-critique that I haven’t yet responded to. (I certainly been been thinking about them.)  So I want you to know that I have been reviewing the famous Sokal hoax article (1996) and his follow-up book Fashionable Nonsense, the Postmodern Abuse of Science. It makes me heart-sick. I will post on this. (Many scientists have told me their negative impression of postmodernism comes from these Sokal sources. The book is so unfair, yet so plausible. Thanks for bringing up whether the Continental thinkers are “innocent” in this matter of abusing other disciplines, Hi, and making me research this book.)

             2) I saw a quip  on the science blog Pharyngula that really tells it like it is.  Something to the effect that “whenever I see a thread that’s gotten up to  more than 80-90 comments, I know that some fresh Christians must have turned up to be roasted.”

             How true! That same particular comment-thread is now up to #190 last I looked, with #185 being me, in fact, who gets roasted repeatedly, along with “Guy in the Pew.”  So if you want to read a much-deserved take-down of Sam Brownback’s op-ed piece in the NY Times (he’s one of the Republican Presidential candidates who raised his hand as not believing in evolution) and then a typical set of comments that will show you  a science blog turning into the Jerry Springer show as soon as any Christian writes in to say, “We aren’t ALL like Sam Brownback,” please “enjoy” yourselves there. It is very saddening, but characteristic. The militant defenders of Reason are just as reductive and closed-minded as the Fundamentalists…. And yet, before we condemn THEM,  don’t we all recognize in ourselves that joyful glee we feel when roasting a position that we deeply dislike, when we get together with our like-minded fellows?

               Finally, 3) Sojourners (a great group of progessive Evangelicals who have no problem with science — yes, they exist) has hosted John Edwards, Barak Obama, and Hilary Clinton to talk with them about the overwhelming biblical insistence that we care for the poor. Here’s the link if you want to listen to an excerpt from each candidate and you can also click there to email all the presidential candidates about addressing poverty and health-care.  (Jim Wallis is their leader — great political writer and thoughtful citizen.)               

              Now believe me, I really understand there’s a lot going on out there that could make any scientific person want to rend and tear and savage the nearest Christian. (A lot of us Christians struggle with the same impulse, as you’ll see at Sojourners.) But it’s the ugly, savaging tone of all the various factions that is the really terrible and rather terrifying thing these days. So please go to Sojourners and click to send those emails?