Archive for February, 2008

Good News from Janet…

February 13, 2008

Hello, readers. I’ve been silent here for a couple of months and yet you’ve shown a remarkably steady interest in my postings. Thank you so very much.

I suffered a bout of illness beginning in late November. Then I submerged myself in new work on the questions we’ve pursued here: a paradigm for knowing in the disciplines that would give all the credit in the world to scientific methodology, but without disparaging or relativizing the other ways of knowing in relation to the natural sciences.

Eureka! I have found it. (I think.) It’s still based on the Greeks, but it’s more cogent and more deeply substantiated in the texts of Plato and Aristotle. Also, I’ve had incredible amounts of fun seeing what happens when I apply the “old” model for knowing to Galileo and Newton, to Descartes and Leibnitz, instead of their own rationalist model.

The old model for “how humans come to know,” the theory of the “-ike” I started to talk about in the “Wily Socrates” posts, was based, of course, in the philosophical theorizing that energized the original vision of a liberal arts education: an education in the disciplines for the formation of citizens capable of self-government.

Plato and Aristotle, as we know, developed (so brilliantly and responsibly) this theory of knowing-through-the-disciplines — that is, in my terms, the theory of the -ike — from out of that gleam in the eye of the historical Socrates: from his practice of a “dialectics” devoted to the eidos, as it appeared in area of ethics (What is “Justice,” “Friendship,” the “Good Life”?).

So, I’ve been working out of Plato’s Ion and Aristotle’s Poetics, principally, with help from Plato’s Theaetetus and the Republic and from other writings of Aristotle, to formalize their theory of the ike, but in terms that will be fresh and efficacious for us today. I’ve been using the Greek words in order to do this, attempting to (re)embue them with the formal rigor I believe they carried in the classical philosophical schools of Athens during the 4th century BCE.

The “-ike,” of course, as my readers here will know, is a reference to this original theory of knowing, the Greco-European vision that inspired education for 2000 years in the West until the rise of science in the 17th century gave birth to a new “theory of knowledge.” The term “ike” derives from the manner in which the Greeks formed disciplinary names by adding -ike to the name of the subject matter, as in poietike, musike, logike, grammatike, physike, arithmetike, and so forth. (This would eventually yeild our “poetics,” “physics,” “arithmetic,” “mathematics,” and so forth.)

The -ike suffix, in other words, indicated that a “techne” or an “episteme” was in view. (Poietike or arithmetike were short for techne poietike or techne rhetorike, but the “techne” part dropped out most of the time.) The Romans translated the Greek techne as the Latin ars, artis, and along with this, they translated the Greek episteme as scientia, thus giving us our modern “arts and sciences.”

Yet today we tend to forget or overlook, given our deeply engrained scientific outlook in the Modern West, that while Aristotle formalized an existing distinction between the technes and epistemes as the “productive” ikes and the “theoretical” ikes, nontheless he still frequently employed either word in order to refer more generally to any formalized disciplinary practice, irrespective of its subject matter and methodology. (We would view arithmetic as a scientific discipline, for example, but while Aristotle saw it as “theoretical” and hence an episteme, it was still called techne arithmetike, just as poetics was called techne poietike. This wasn’t incidental, either, but crucial to take into our account.)

By the way, Plato and Aristotles insisted upon using fluid vocabularies because they were concerned with teaching the nature of thought itself, and so, as teachers first, they inculcated the capacity to register and attend to the complicated formal levels of organization manifested by the various kinds of things. This emergence of flexibility and deftness on the part of their students was more important to them than the modern insistence on honing an exact set of technical terms.

Don’t misunderstand me. Precision was as important to them as it was to Kepler, Galileo, or Newton. And the mechanics of motion couldn’t have been developed apart from this method. But for the Greeks, the kind of precision varied according to the kind of discipline, and the precision they most desired was to be located ultimately in the development of persons capable of well-armed thinking, while 17th century thinkers valued as genuine the method that could be operated most mechanically and impersonally so as to acheive the kind of “universality” that they held to be the mark of genuine knowledge.

(This is why so many of Plato’s dialogues warn us of the ambiguities that we must all, as “neophytes,” confront and think through, if we hope to mature as thinkers, yet without showing us the path through the muddle itself. Aristotle is more generous to beginners. He is willing to set out the simplest basics in his Organon.)

Plato and Aristotle, I believe, were learning and teaching how to think dynamically, formally, and elegantly, but not mechanically. Their theory of knowing, in other words, involved the formal elegance of the ike itself, lying at a structural level deeper than the specialized methodologies of any of the individual ikes, whether they happened to be geometry, arithmetic, history, ethics, political theory, or, as in the Ion, cowherding, piloting a boat, or producing clean laundry.

It is striking that in Plato’s very early account of -ike in the Ion, he depicts Socrates as teaching the theory of techne (or episteme) itself, rather than pursuing directly an ethical eidos (the so-called Form or Idea). Like the later Theaetetus, in which “Socrates” asks “What is episteme?” the Ion is devoted in depth to the theory of ike. In it, Socrates proceeds one by one through the formal distinguishing features belonging to any and all of the ikes. (This is in the course of querying whether the rhapsode Ion, who claims an ike for epic poetry, in fact does or does not possess an ike.) Thus we are shown the significance of Socrates’ enquiries in ethics for the new philosophical way of life formalized by Plato. Both are based on an eidetic/dialectical theory of ike.
Both in Ion, and in Aristotle’s brilliant response to the question of whether there is an ike for poetry (contained in the thoughtwork of the Poetics), we see a theory of what constitutes a genuine way of knowing that is quite capable of being held up today — in the spirit of Neils Bohr’s complementarity? — as an alternative model for the arts and sciences and their role in the formation of a free citizenry.

In actuality, I do not think that the “new-old” paradigm of Greco-European knowing stands in the relationship of “complementarity” to the Enlightenment theory of knowledge — that is, to the classical theory of scientific rationalism that was developed in the 17th century, that dominated the 18th and 19th centuries in the West, and that was elaborated exhaustively throughout much of the 20th century in the tradition of Frege, Russell, and Carnap (not to mention Wittgenstein and Husserl).

Instead, I think that each of these two historical models brings out certain features of a very complex and urgent question: how do human beings genuinely come to know? And what are the consequences of genuine learning to know, in terms of the ethical, political, and spiritual good of individuals and of their communities?

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, along with 12 centuries of Christian thinkers in the medieval and Renaissance worlds, sought nothing less than human salvation through the life of the mind. (It is, after all, the mind‘s path to God for Augustine, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Dante, and the humanists of the Renaissance.) Yet none of them was the kind of intellectual snob that we moderns have been, with our elitist, patronizing, and exclusionary “theory of knowledge” and education. (They had their own snobberies and repressive elitisms, but not when it came to salvation.)

So this is the shape that my own work is now taking: following these two models that Western history offers us. The later model, established during the rise of science, was unquestionably built upon the laws of motion and gravitation, as its far-reaching Kuhnian paradigm. Galileo and Newton established this paradigm, however, by developing a new ike, one which was addressed to a newly redefined kind of thing. (It is utterly fascinating to look at the development of Newtonian mechanics through the lens of the Greek theory of ike, because it fits so remarkably well while placing its features in a fresh light.)

The first model for knowing, I believe, is best captured and represented by the account of ike elucidated by Aristotle in his Poetics. With respect to this “poetic” model, if we take it to serve as the Kuhnian paradigm for all of earlier Greco-European knowing, we must give the last word to Luce Irigary! (Over whom we have languished a good deal here, thanks to Alan Sokel.)

She deserves the nod because the essential differences between the two models turn out to resemble, at least metaphorically, the formal differences between the “mechanics of bodies in motion,” on the one hand, and “fluid dynamics,” on the other.
However, we should remember that “metaphorical” meant something quite different to Plato and Aristotle and later Greco-European thinkers than it has meant to moderns. Ability in the ikes, Aristotle remarked, shows itself in quickness with metaphor. (Contemporary physicists emphasize the creativity and invention of everyday working science. In many respects, they have modified the classical scientific paradigm already. We may all be on the threshold for a third model.)

Does the mark of real brilliance in the sciences differ fundamentally from what it is in the arts? Certainly, the heuristic methods and standards for testing differ from discipline to discipline. But something perhaps lies under them all. Something sub-stantial. the capacity to invent models deftly and fruitfully, by flexibly employing potential structural analogies and relationships, and intuiting likely symmetries. It lies in the human capacity to invent, apply, test, evaluate, modify, and abandon models, in the course of attempting to trace the elegantly formalizable dynamics of any given kind of thing.

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[I don’t know how much of this current work I’ll be placing here, but I’ll be letting you know where to find it, for certain. I do intend to put more of the literary theory course here, since folks are reading it, and I’m very glad to engage in dialogue about any of this. Those exchanges last summer and fall with the physicists (and biologist) have proved invaluable to me; thank you all so much. My work will be more accurate and appealing across the disciplines because of all the repeated “checks” I’ve experienced here! And all of your “leads” and invaluable links.]