Posts Tagged ‘literary theory’

Update from Janet, September 2011

September 6, 2011

A former student asked me a question here last week: do you plan to publish something on this “incredibly important” conversation?  He meant the conversation between science and faith and more specifically the lively conversation with physicists (and with one biologist) that took place on a few years ago. So here’s an update on what I’ve been doing more recently.

The sort of conversation attempted here is important, and yes, I am planning to publishing something very much related to it. Right now I am finishing up a sequence of essays on  Greek theory of knowing — a theory of the irreducibly many ways of knowing on which liberal arts education was originally based — working out of Plato and Aristotle, but addressing the entire course of the liberal arts tradition in Western history. These are addressed primarily to literary theorists in my own field, but they keep the natural scientists and mathematicians always in view as well, and I employ many elegant paradigms for disciplined knowing taken from Galileo and Newton, and from geometry and mathematics, as well as linguistics and poetics.

If these essays help to initiate the kind of respectful conversation between the ways of knowing that we all would love to see, then I will go back to finishing my book, which is addressed to a more general audience, especially to physicists and to theists and to anyone else who cares about the liberal arts and the life of the mind, and who is saddened by the distrust and misunderstanding between “science” and “religion,” as between cultural theorists and those academics who are more scientifically oriented (including analytic philosophers like Dawson and Searle).

I have been working on this particular task for more than nine years now. If I had known how hard it was going to be, perhaps I might never have started. But at this point at last, I have the arc and sweep of my larger argument worked out, and not simply various pieces of it. The work has crystalized, so to speak, and I’m happy with the essays I will begin sending out for publication this fall.

The lively back and forth on this website a few years ago proved to be a real springboard for me: it continues to guide me and give me insight into the problems I am treating from the point of view of the physicists and biologists. I cringe to think of the many missteps I would be making unawares, if it had not been for their honest expressions of dismay and impatience with this “innumerate humanist” (sometimes even when I thought I had been the most clear, tactful, and forbearing). The physicists — and one biologist — who conversed with me here taught me what the hot buttons really are and how to avoid pushing them accidentally; I suspect this will have improved my ability to communicate persuasively with the scientific segment of my audience.

So I am very grateful to the great conversation partners I had here from the natural sciences, mostly sent over originally by Jennifer Ouelette from Cocktail Party Physics, or else engaged with originally at Sean Carroll’s Cosmic Variance website. ( was also very helpful in orienting me — it is a treasure of a news and features aggregator for those in the sciences, and its editors were encouraging to me.) I am especially grateful to the Socratic lovers of deliberative conversation who faithfully discussed my “Wily Socrates” posts — and participated in that one very long conversation — a real workout for everyone involved — on Part I of my introductory lecture on Literary Theory (over in Pages).

Traces of that conversation on Plato’s Ion will surely be discernible in the work that will have emerged from it.

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

March 5, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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