Theorist Asks You for an Act of the Historical Imagination

VISITORS: WE’VE BEEN 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.)

However, folks, in this grand debate between philosophy and poetry (i.e. science and cultural studies?), I’ve been stuck for little awhile on the next Wily Socrates post. I’m having a huge case of exploding ideas, and I want to go in every conceivable direction at once. (What? You’ve noticed I have tendency to do this?)

So I posted the entry below in the meantime, which is outdated and BORING, except for the part about Stanley Fish, which you ought to scroll down to and read (it’s highlighted)…. Otherwise, visitors, go back and read Wily Socrates # 4 instead, it’s a good introduction, or # 3, and the scintillating discussions thereof. I shall return, with # 7, soon….

This post is part of an earlier comment thread I’m bringing up onto the front page, because I would like to bring everyone’s attention to these issues more prominently. This comes from the Wily Socrates posts but concerns general issues on this weblog.

At one point, Rick said: “It seems to me that if we are forced to conclude that either no-one possesses an “ike” (or at least a “whole ike”) unless they know everything about an entire field of endeavor, or that each individual specialization is its own ike, then perhaps what we have is a problem with the concept of an “ike”.”

I’d like to use this comment to highlight the contrast I want to make between the dynamically fluid formalism of the Greco-European tradition, about which I am “telling my story,” and the quite different emphasis on “solid pieces of knowledge” that has dominated Modern thought and educational theory in the past 300 years.

What is the nature of the “wholeness” of “a whole ike”? It is not a wholeness acheived by inclusion of every “fact” or “objectified” piece of information that might belong to a field of study, as we tend to think of it. (Rick cleared himself of this charge, by the way, if it ever was a charge!)

For the Greeks, though it seems paradoxical to us, a discipline is not constituted by “knowledge” at all. Knowledge (in the modern sense) is merely a by-product of ike. An ike is an acquired skill in a communal way of thinking, and it has to be learned through practice, while participating with others in an activity directed to a certain purpose. That telos is to come to know with formal lucidity, something that has a formal unity and coherence to be known.

As becomes very clear in the next section of the dialogue, the “oneness” of an art relates to the “oneness” of the phenomenon it studies. But the oneness of the phenomenon (kind of thing) is not at all like the oneness of a concrete material “object.” Object-ive knowing thought of what it knows as well-delineated and isolated objects that are strictly separate from one another and from the processes that produce them. The modern idea of the “fact” was built on this model.

Greek Form-al knowing, in contrast, is interested in an individual object as an instance of a formal kind of thing and is after what produces and sustains that kind of thing.

Isn’t this, though, in practice what Galileo and Newton did in formalizing the laws of motion and gravitation? They weren’t interested in anything about the particular objects except as “instances” of how matter behaves as matter in motion, and they formulated the “laws” that implicitly must produce and sustain these motions. But because of the radical separating of mind from nature, and to avoid “metaphysics,” classical science rigidly separated the “laws” from the material objects.

Actually, I have never been able to figure out exactly how scientific rationalists did used to think of the ontological status of scientific laws and mathematical formulas — are they things in the world or ideas in our heads or what? Especially the empiricists and positivists — I can’t find an account of what the maths are doing, in their own view. I’ve been reading waay too much Bertrand Russell, I guess. But I’m utterly fascinated by (not being able to see) the way he produces his pronouncements.

But isn’t the separation of gravitational law from matter impossible to sustain in modern physics? Isn’t it based ultimately in the components of matter itself on the sub atomic level? The very notion of “matter” has rather complicated and non-concrete, hasn’t it? And what about E = Mc^2? Now the Greeks thought of the principles or the laws as inhering in the material instances by “forming” and “informing” them. And that fluidity and connectedness seemed too vague, too vitalistic, and too metaphysical to natural philosophers in the 17th century. It seemed to stand in the way of the development of Newtonian “mechanics” at the time, and it was dismissed.

But I tend to see this same notion — unstated — everywhere in Neo-darwinian and other accounts of emergent phenomena today. E = Mc^2 has to have ended the notion of “matter” as an inert and solid “stuff” that extends indifferently in time and space, doesn’t it? Matter is energy? (Classicists, this is Aristotle’s dynamis and inergeia, material potency and actualization in the form of ability to do work…) But I’ll wait to see if the scientists challenge me….

We have seen that knowing for human beings is a constant process of constituting theoretical accounts of kinds of things, in terms of their distinctive features and their formal principles. (What we know of particular individual things is mediated dialectically through this process, the idealizing or concept-forming process, which is always operating as we use our communal storehouse of words referring to kinds of things. “This is a puppy.”) Developing the theory of the ike opens for Plato and Aristotle the Possibility of more focused and lucid and thoughtful knowing for the human knower within a disciplinary community for knowing, but ONLY because elegant formality does manifest itself in the world in a dazzling array of varieties.

Why do I keep insisting on all this about the formal ike? A friend said to me, “You are asking Rick and the others to take little baby steps with you instead of giving the larger picture of where you are going.”

If this is the case, it is not because I think my readers can only handle little “baby steps.”

But it might be a somewhat inescapable by-product of what I am trying to do, which is to elicit form my readers an act of the historical imagination. For it certainly is the case that, as Rick put it, “perhaps what we have is a problem with the concept of an ‘ike.'” Yes, today we definitely do have a problem with the concept. And what I want to do is clear away some of the obstacles and allow us to see the coherence of the idea of the ike for the Greeks! To see its coherence within a different frame of reference from our own. (It will serve us well all the way through the Renaissance.)

If I can only get you to make this leap with me — a kind of leap that can only be made by an act of self-transcendence, by allowing the horizons of your world to shift — then you will be empowered to experience this amazing kind of thinking that is all about formal elegance in the universe, manifesting itself in (and as) the kind of thing, because of the formal processes that produce the kind-of-thing.

But this particular leap is very hard to do from where we are, and that makes it particularly rewarding for us, it seems to me. The rupture that Descartes managed to initiate, by his own amazing imaginative and theoretical genius, was between the human knower or subject (“I”) and the “object” of knowledge, but it was a rupture that simultaneoulsy collapsed the human act-of-knowing and the thing-to-be-known into one and the same thing. (I hope I can show you how fateful this was to be.)

Finally, but not least significant, the Cartesian paradigm produced a huge chasm between the older Greek dynamical coming-into-being of things (physis) and the new awareness of the concrete particular things that exist, considered as inert “objects” of human knowledge, measurably extended in time and space and knowlable in the sense of being quantitatively measurable and plottable.

This was the day the universe died. “Life” effectively disappeared (animals are machines) and the only center of vitality and choice and spontaneity became a mental substance to be found only in the mind of human beings (and in God). Really, this had to be about as radical an invention and historical paradigm shift as can be imagined. And 250 years of historical cultural process has entrenched it in our minds: this new “objectivist” model for reality and epistemology in the Modern centuries.

But if you are willing to attempt to set all of this conditioning in abeyance, since you already know what the familar way of thinking can do, and if you are willing to engage instead — perhaps through “a willing suspension of disbelief” (John Keats) — in reconsidering the rigid separation of the “laws of nature” from the (inert) objects — then you might end up with more than one rich way of thinking about the same things, one of them from our own era of history and one from an earlier era. (“Complementary” models that might urge us towards a deeper theory?)

It seems to me that the ontological separation of the human mind from all material bodies of every kind, and the separation of “the objects” from what was now called “scientific law,” was as arbitrary and artificial as it would be to regard “blood” as a separate ontological substance from the body through which the blood courses. Why is “thought” a separate ontological substance from the bodily human brain? And only the “thought” of human brains, at that? (Not of animals?) This is why it is so ironical for Dawkins to accuse Christians of being the ones clinging to the superstition of a separate soul or spirit or mind, when historically this was invented with the rise of science!

Meanwhile, Bertrand Russell (the granddaddy of Dawkins and Dennett as analytical philosophers) wanted to reduce this Cartesian dualism by simply making everything mechanistic, and denying any reality to human thought or the human experience of the “I.” But Dennett and Dawkins are taking “mentality” very seriously as an emergent phenomenon to be studied scientifically. All of this is a nest of paradoxes!

Descartes and his eager disciples, who electrified Europe, accomplished this inexplicable feat of separating of scientific law (presumably as res cogitans or thought-stuff?) from res extensa (or matter-stuff), by developing between them a radical opposition that persists in our minds to the present moment. (Where it jostles uncomfortably in our heads along with the new paradigms in all the disciplines and in popular culture that have deconstructed this misguided Cartesian dualism.)

To me, in our day, the greatest liberation can come from learning to “stop patronizing the past” and being willing “to see the present as itself a period.”

This has been the point for me of teaching earlier literature and philosophy. The external world and the interiority of the human subject have been historically interrelated in a number of different ways, and each model will disclose (and also “white out” or erase) some aspects of the state of affairs, when there is a genuine and deep engagement with reality. In this, how can the rise of science as a way of knowing fail to move us and to be appreciated in its exemplary reality-testing procedures and safe-guards? I think it cannot and must fail so to move us.

Poststructuralism certainly does not deny the external world or our genuine engagement with it. But what the Saussurean revolution has given us is a much deeper awareness of how profoundly conditioned and mediated every kind of human engagement with the world is, and how profoundly our conditioned human perceptions and that which is perceived are interrelated. Science does not escape this condition, and yet it presents us with an exemplary way of knowing in which fascinating its own epistemological checks and balances come into play, despite every pressure upon it (and presence within it) of social, political, and other cultural meaning-systems.

The Saussurean recognition — the fundamental paradox of late twentieth-century thought (and to me the essence of what is best in post-Modernity) — means that the splendid goal of the liberal arts education is superlatively empowered today. We have the opening of the better possibility to think and to know, precisely because we do not have to be unwittingly bound to our own cultural paradigms. (It only takes one or two other paradigms to make us significantly less parochial thinkers and significantly more flexible and acute and undefensive thinkers.)

We are also in the philosophically enviable position of being significantly chastened and humbled by realizing how deeply we are formed — intersubjectively, in our shared codes of conventional associations — by our cultures, and by our personal histories of formation, which go back to before we knew ourselves as an “I.” This can only make our disciplinary thinking more cognizant and efficacious.

So my goal is not to convince you, my readers, that the Enlightenment worldview was “wrong” and the Greco-European one was “right.” (But I see I have erred in my presentation, by seeming to suggest that. And rightly this has evoked protest, most recently from Hi.)

No, I want us to see the sequence of worldviews in Western history as a rich opportunity for us North Americans (who are so largely monolingual) to learn new “epistemological” languages, to imaginatively grasp and apply an “other” way of thinking rigorously, which in this case comes to us from Plato and Aristotle.

Why? Because this will enrich and broaden us, but most of all because of what it does for us when we “return” to our own world and our own deeply engrained set of assumptions about what knowing is and what it is for. We will see ourselves and our own worldview better, because we have fresh critical apprehensions about it.

Now in the U. S., Stanley Fish has been notorious for arguing that getting outside of our own “interpretive community” only means that we have been inducted into another interpretive community, or into two or three more of them, but that we can never get to a place outside of all these parochial human communities and arrive at an objective view of “the way things really are.” This line of “relativist” thinking seems to loom large in American constructivist theory.

I want to say as emphatically as I am able that if Fish means this as a critique of the time-honored liberal-arts ideal of critical awareness and its power to “liberate” us, then his argument only holds water if we are thinking in terms of an ideal of finding an Archimedian point upon which we can rest everything, and from which we can “move the world.” That is, if we are thinking of getting entirely outside of our former parochialism and acheiving, once and for all, a God’s-eye vantage-point, so that we humans can loftily proclaim that we know finally and completely the objective and universal truth of the ways things really are.

This hope, of course, was once brand new, when it arose with science and the Newtonian-inspired Enlightenment — that humanity could now cease to be parochial and subjective and could now attain to this universality of objective fact and a “self-evident” Reason. (In the 50s, so far as I can tell, I was still growing up in THAT world. What a huge paradigm-shift has occurred in our culture since then.)

The Enlightenment was, like all powerful cultural movements, an experiment in attempting to put into practice and to live out certain selected values, and many of those values were magnificent (the universal rights of man, for instance, and the idea that science could promote the material welfare of humankind).

All such cultural experiments also produce the unexpected and often completely unwanted “dark side” of living out their selected values, because selecting some values means excluding or denying others. And in the thrilling adventure of forging this new culture, we are generally utterly blind to this dark side. We simply do not see it, because we are focusing on what we have selected to focus upon.

Yet this is also why cultures are most critical and despairing about themselves for their perceived failures in fully instituting their highest values. In the Modern West, our failures in acheiving genuine human rights for all; in the medieval West, their failures in acheiving spiritual compassion and responsibility by persons on all levels of feudal society, which is endlessly mourned and reproached in medieval texts.

This is the human condition, I believe, and this is a view of the human condition that I read in poststructuralism, in postmodern times, and in the historical Christian faith, in the premodern West, both of which viewed humanity as riddled with contradictions (even in our highest efforts), and both of which thought dialectically about the play of positivity and negativity in the human psyche and in human communities.

As I noted, this didn’t lessen the acute disappointment registered in the earlier Christian era over humans not consistently fulfilling higher spiritual ideals, over them not being universally transfigured and empowered by grace. Similarly, it leaves poststructuralists, also, struggling with the human condition, a constant in all of their work. French poststructuralism was anything but a superficial fashionability. The willingness to face the depths of human “unsuccess” as the real problem for the human race has been for me the greatest strength of both traditions of thought.

Going back to the comment about the ike implying “a knowledge of everything about a specialization,” I want to ask all of you to keep on pushing yourselves to think this question differently — as well as to think it also in the astute way that that Rick has thought it for us. (Think it both ways. Let them play against each other. Work in the in-between of the two paradigms. That’s the poststructuralists’ chosen territory because its turbulence is so rich in seeking higher-order formulations about human meaning-structures….)

Our formalisms are what guide us in seeking facts and data and what help us to know where to look next, how to select and combine those pieces into the required coherent picture or results. This skill of ours in this formal elegance derived from its human history — we are nourished by those who have gone before us, but we know we are working out an evolving story and we know that in the future our ike will look different than it does from where we now stand.

So why do we persist? Because there is nothing better or more fascinating or revealing for us to do with our human energies, and we want to think it further and to teach it to young minds. We hope our specialization will cultivate and season young minds, and make them better equipped to be thoughtful citizens, and that some of them will turn into the future workers in our field. We don’t really teach them information. We teach them “how to think” that information. (How it has been thought and how it is now thought, so that they can progress to the better way it might be thought in the future.)

In every field and specialization, we do experience Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigm shifts,” but the many, many students with whom I’ve read Kuhn had no difficulty pointing out that his model was too simplistic and rigid — just an introductory schema for starting to think about science (like any discipline) as having deep continuties with its past formalizations and yet being able to recognize when a leap to a better paradigm will fulfill its earlier efforts on a higher and more comprehensive level. My students always tell me that Kuhn overdoes the “incommensurability” of the new paradigm vis-a-vis the old. (This indicates how thoroughly our cultural codes, the codes that have formed these kids, have absorbed at this point the once revolutionary and entirely counter-intuitive work of Kuhn.)

So I’d like to point toward the work of the great physical chemist (and philosopher of science Michael Polanyi) to complete this post. Using a deeply Augustinian stance toward the situation of the scientist as knower, his description of how humans are able to come to know is for me the most convincing model I’ve ever encountered.

For him, what enables human knowing (the conditions of its possibility) is a reality for and in the human mind that is the same reality that enables all emergence, everywhere in our universe, including the “leap” from the floating amino acids to the first one-celled organisms, those little “centres of thought and responsibility” (this is a chemist speaking) that first exploited the opportunity to initiate biological life. That reality is the potentiality locked into the universal history that has formed us — the drive from the beginning to exploit every potential for higher-order complexity. At the same time, the reality that forms us as we are now (say Newtonian mechanics) also empowers us to make the next “leap” in organization (say relativistic mechanics and quantum mechanics), in the form of our brilliantly formalized next attempts to know.


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