Archive for April, 2008

People of science, people of faith, please…

April 10, 2008

Please read the comment threads on the previous two posts, my most substantive posts ever, perhaps. It seems to me that we are getting somewhere, on our efforts to theorize the arts and sciences so as to do full justice to the natural sciences without demeaning the humanities, or the cultural and religious ways of knowing…. I need your thoughts. And please ask others to read, and comment, too. (It’s okay to be saucy, and gut-honest direct, but because these are such difficult issues we’re tackling, all of us will also need thoughtfulness, humility, and respect. (I myself have been called to account, quite rightfully, for not realizing that my own wording was going beyond passionate into the realm of disrespectful…to my great regret. So we’ll keep on calling each other to account.)

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How do the liberal arts produce a “good citizen”? — or a “good Christian”?

April 4, 2008

Scott Says:
April 4, 2008 at 6:29 am
Do we know in advance that the techne of a given discipline is intrinsically conducive to bringing about ‘a good citizen’? One might be persuaded to think that the techne has to do with learning how to see and understand the object / subject matter of the discipline (e.g. poetike, politike). rather than some other end like ‘making a good citizen’? Also, do we know that this ordinary language philosophy of ‘techne poetike’ includes some explicit philosophical doctrine about ‘making good citizens’? In other words, wouldn’t we need some explicitly stated doctrine about the intrinsic goal(s) of human nature and how that goal is partly achieved by being apprenticed into various disiciplines? Just some thoughts…

Good point, Scott. (My off-line writing is spelling this out point by point.) So thanks for bringing it up here.

In fact, I hope I do not propose that “the techne of a given discipline is intrinsically conducive to bringing about a good citizen,” and for two rather different reasons. First, taken by itself, a techne is precisely what you describe, “learning how to see and understand the object / subject matter of the discipline (e.g. poietike, politike).”

[By the way, for non-Greek scholars out there, in Greek these are pronounced “poy- AY-tee-kay” and “pol-EE-tee-kay,” so the -IKE is pronounced “EE-kay.” It’s always fun to know these sorts of things, even though we don’t as a rule run around saying YULE-ee-us Kai-sar, for Julius Caesar, do we?]

But given the theory of the ike that Socrates, Plato, Aristotle produced, and that informed all education in the liberal arts at least through the Renaissance, it is precisely the non-single-ness of an ike, the very fact of the many ikes, and hence, of the many epistemological ways of knowing (as opposed to the single authoritative way, the classical scientific rationalism of the 17th-19th centuries, upon which our own monolithic “modern epistemology” is based) that they found the possibility of producing a new kind of knower: the “liberated” or “free” knower.

No one ike, however important and broad in its scope, could possibly do this, because it would always be single, and the knower would be ill-equipped for knowing and unable to guard against the manipulation and misuse of that one way, as scientific rationalism has been misued (and as monolithically conceived biblical authority has been misused). The whole point was to learn that truth is arrived at variously and through its different focuses, in both its objects and its aims. (Truth is not relativistic, not vague and fuzzy, but it is highly varied, and knowing towards truth is accomplished through means that are highly focused and therefore powerful AND LIMITED in their very constitution.)

This liberally educated knower is the only Knower equipped to really function as a good citizen, because only such a person has the means to develop the requisite kind of freedom and wholeness in choosing. (More on this in a moment.) But the second reason that no techne produces a good citizen is that nothing EVER guarantees that a person WILL become a “good citizen” — look at Alcibiades.

Nonetheless, only such a knower has offered to them even the potential, the potential to become the kind of person who might result when the mind is equipped with many ikes, and who therefore might have come to terms with the strengths and limitations of each ike, and with the various claims each makes on the knower, with respect of the others. This person, therefore, is the who has genuinely realized and internalized the deep truth that the real difficulty in knowing is knowing how to value and appreciate the ikes with respect to one another, and then, knowing how to bring them to bear, something for which no rules can be written. (Arendt calls this the “nativity” of the citizen, the power for bringing irreducibly new things into the shared communal world.)

Only such an agility and responsibility — attributes that have grown up functioning in the mind or personhood of the knower — will enable any citizen or civic leader to bring all of this (the various ikes as one) to bear upon the city’s needs and crises, as well as to bear upon one’s own deepest existential and spiritual questions.

Christian thinkers and teachers had no problem with this Socratic theory of the liberal arts, because it was manifest to the church early on that sound teaching is a matter of balancing many truths, and that balancing many truths is a matter of personal growth, and that the struggle that never quits. Therefore, teaching that does not nourish knowers (heresy) is simply teaching that takes one TRUTH and emphasizes it out of proportion to the other TRUTHS (Christ’s divinity, Christ’s humanity; the intrinsic goodness of created nature; nature’s fallenness; the primacy of grace, the necessity of good works; and so, on and on).

To grow as a Christian was viewed, in the Greco-European tradition, in the same way as to grow as a liberally educated knower, which is why it was medieval Christianity that founded the universities, where faculties are brought together in one place, many teachers to teach many different ikes. (Many “ways” (versa) in one place (uni) — according to medieval theologians and historians. Or see the incredibly enlightening essay by Thomas Merton on the university education in a posthumous collection of his essays called “Living and Loving.”)

“Freedom,” as enjoyed by a liberally educated knower and as enjoyed by a mature Christian, this “Freedom evolves,” as Daniel Dennett has said (in a similar but different context). The ability to act and to choose, in complex situations, and to elect one course to follow, with all of its ambiguities and hardships, and then to follow it with the poise of a whole and integral personhood, this is the end result of an ardent life-long struggle in knowing: the struggle of continually re-integrating the various ikes and their various truths and learning to recognize “what truth feels like,” in all its different guises.

Jesus did this, when “he set his face like a flint toward Jerusalem.” Socrates did it when he chose to follow a LESSER good, simply obedience to the laws of his city, and so to drink the hemlock. He was in a highly equivocal situation, and he chose to follow this simple and humble law, just as wholly as he might have followed a much higher truth or a higher good in another situation (e.g. in the LIFE he had led, admitting his own ignorance and struggling toward an understanding of what sort of thing knowing really is).

Now I know that modern Christians have difficulty with this, because of our own modern epistemology, and they will often protest that the Christian life isn’t “just for an intellectual elite” or that it is lived “by faith” and not “by reason.” But this again is a great misunderstanding, based on our modern epistemology, of what it means to engage in “knowing” and what truth is like. In scriptures as in classical philosophy, “all human beings eagerly desire to know.” We are knowers, and faith is an engaged process of struggling ardently in knowing.

“Knowing” is not, as modern epistemology suggests, something that culminates in “knowledge”; knowing uses knowledge, a secondary sense, and such knowledge is always, always provisional and heuristic knowledge, not final knowledge.

So knowing is not about having in our grasp “some explicitly stated doctrine about X,” as Scott puts it. Nor is knowing “by faith” anything other than following and engaging in the ways of knowing that are founded on trust, on an acceptance of the bibilical materials and the sacraments and doctrines of the church as means (ikes, as it were) for coming to know God better. But we have to struggle to interpret these materials and traditions, to integrate them ever more deeply into our lives, to understand them as living means of truth, helped along by more mature knowers, and always learning by placing the emphasis too much here and too much there or discovering we have been entirely wrong. We are perfectly capable of being blinded by the lights that are given to us.

Faith is “learning how to” work with and benefit from all of the formal means and materials that we take to have been given us by God, because God communicated God’s self towards us through revelation. Faith knowing is the knowing that is based on working with special revelation, the Hebraic tradition and the revelation of God in Christ, but these are no less difficult to engage with as knowing the natural and human worlds through the disciplinary ikes.

What the faith gives to us to work with must be unceasingly interpreted and re-balanced and re-integrated within the believer’s growing mind. This is a passionate and wholistic process, of course, just as the “philosophical way of life” with all of its arts and sciences was in the 4th century BCE, and it uses things like “explicit doctrinal statements” as grist for its mill, but as for the real goal, the understanding of (or deep contact with) the “object or subject-matter” of all these doctrines and writings and traditions? As for knowing God? As for knowing Christ? These things that the faith gives us are not the ultimate to-be-known, but speak of and point towards Him, and even unite us with Him.
So you see, this older theory of knowing does not just rest in the many-ness of the ikes, as equipping a knower to USE and balance and integrate all the various ikes and on occasion to choose the claims of one over another as paramount in a given context. And it does not just rest in the power of the many-ness of the ikes to enlighten the knower as to the many aims that might be in view, so as to be able to choose WHAT the relevant goods might be in this situation or which might be best to follow NOW….

No, in addition to all of this, the older theory of knowing always rests in, and places the dunamis, the power and the generative energies of human knowing in, the to-be-known, in the hidden depths of reality that constitutes the TO-BE-KNOWN. (The knower is not the source of knowing; not until after the ikes have come into the mind as mediators of knowing, and the ikes can only be such if they are indeed able to open the mind to perceive some of the genuine characteristics of the to-be-known.)

The ikes, in other words, WORK to empower the knower ONLY insofar as they are themselves efficaciously formal organizations that accord with and bring to manifestation (some aspects of) the true intrinsic formal organization of the to-be-known, the “object or subject matter”of the ike.

Do you see? The ike is almmost like an “invasion” into the knower’s mind, or an “opening up” and reorganization of the knower’s mind, so that it can apprehend the to-be-known, by implanting something inside the knower that is profoundly “like” that which is to be known. The ike in the mind is the mediating formal substance — it is the “something in common” that is BOTH the to-be-known and the knower; BOTH the self and the other. (AD’s “extimate core” of the knowing subject, over on http://www.thelandofunlikeness.com.)

Thus the ike is in this sense very like Christ, in its function and constitution, as being the mediative, revealing, substantiality that is both God and humanity and can therefore bring them into communion, because this one “host” is God and is “in us,” at the same time. (I could say more a lot about Christ as the Word, here….)

So, for a knower to engage in knowing God through Christ, it is absolutely necessary to have a new “place in the mind” opening up, wherein these new ways of knowing can root themselves and gradually (perhaps) transfigure the knower. (The new birth, of course, as the spiritual regeneration of what Adam lost in spiritual death.)

In ordinary circumstances, this building of the ikes as dynamic mediators between the knower and God takes place through the dailyChristian disciplines and through the ongoing teachings and sacraments of the Church. So this theory of knowing is not an intellectual elitism; it is the all-important taking in of the “milk” and then the “meat” that makes us mature (Hebrews). The difference between natural knowing through the secular arts and sciences, and faith knowing, is that in the second case, the milk and meat — the to-be-known — is the special mediative substances for knowing that we trust that God has given. So we believe them (accept them) in order that we might genuinely begin to engage in knowing through them. (Credo ut intelligis.)

But ultimately, what matters most for religious knowers is a modicum of deep contact with the divine to-be-known, and this can come in extraordinary ways as well. Thus we all know persons who deeply “know” God without much theology. Very simple persons can have a deeper knowing of God (a more fiery love) than most persons with high IQ’s.

What matters is the extent to which God is being known by the person, not at all the inherent abilities of the knower. Aquinas himself said that compared to his contemplative vision of God, all his writings “were as straw.” He did not mean they were wrong or worthless. He never had claimed they were right in the first place. They were deeply grounded, humble, arduous, heuristic efforts at knowing better, more deeply, and they were submitted in that spirit to the ongoing theological conversations, and he rejoiced in doing it.

But they were all “for the sake of knowing God,” and that knowing as it turned out was infinitely deeper in his contemplative experience, before his death, than in his writings. Who knows if his experience could have come to him in just that way, though, if his soul had not been strengthened and prepared through the spiritual exertions of his writings. Certainly his writings strengthen and prepare us for knowing.

The telos of the liberal arts education and of the Christian life in the earlier Western liberal arts tradition (and I think this is biblically the case as well) was always to produce in the knower, not a set of “explicit statements of doctrinal truth,” but rather, instead, “wisdom.” Wisdom is entirely personalistic: it cannot be scripted and it has no written rules. (Just as Aristotle pointed out about the ethical virtues in NE.) Yet every script and rule can inform it, and often, at one point and another in a process of growth, are even necessary to inform it.

So I think that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, like Jesus and the Apostles, knew that wise persons often do not manage to save the ship of state, yet they are nonetheless essential to the city’s hope for its welfare, and we are taught to commit ourselves to that, if not as the highest law. Yet, in the collapse of civic salvation, there remains the personalistic salvation that Merton describes, that the university exists to enable.

Milton saw that the Christian Republic to which he had devoted his life had been abandoned, and that England had fallen back into the tyranny of monarchs, as he saw it. So at last, he wrote Paradise Lost instead, in his dying years, about what two human persons in love with one another took with them out of the garden. And Athens continued to decline after the execution of Socrates. Yet Arendt reminds us that Aristotle thought that Plato had died a happy man.