This is the “old” deep grace of theory weblog, but you will still find everything here from 2007 to 2011, so enjoy!

I had many long conversations in this space ten years ago: some with physicists (and one biologist!) on physics and on reading Plato’s Ion, for example. (The “Wily Socrates” thread.) You’ll also find here two posts and some discussion on Shusaku Endo’s great novel Silence, along with a series of posts on the television series Dollhouse; one post on the philosopher and theologian Kevin Hart; and many others on other topics.

Now, in 2019, I’ve prepared a NEW “deepgraceoftheory ” website — it will be at .ORG instead of at .COM — because of all the thinking and studying I’ve been doing since I first tried to talk with natural sciences about topics from Derrida to the early Greek philosophers. I have been thinking about the brilliance of the scientific method, and about the dynamic early-Greek theory of the exquisitely-skilled and highly-evidentiary met-hodoi — those cherished early-Greek “arts of knowing” or “ways of knowing. The Athenian vision of the arts and sciences was cherished also by the successors of Plato and Aristotle, as their understanding of a “philo-sophical” education and way of life spread out and journeyed into so many lands and found a home amidst so many different peoples, cultures, and religions. This philosophical tradition most certainly does NOT belong exclusively to the Western tradition — for some 2000 years it traveled everywhere in the “(then-)known” world, and it was preserved and spread by the rapid expansion of Islam, for example, just as it was by the Roman Christian missionaries to Celtic and Germanic peoples in northwestern Europe. In contrast, however, modern philosophy is assuredly a peculiarly Western phneomenon, and introduced a very different theory of human knowing — modeled on the deductive-apriori of analytical geometry — during the Cartesian revolution in philosophy between 1650 and 1700. As a result, early-modern, high-modern, and post-modern philosophy is its own unique species of philosophy, and as recently as 1979 Paul Feyerabend still had to write his Against Method simply to argue that a natural science is NOT a “philosophy” in the received modern understanding. It is NOT, that is to say, a top-down “system” of “necessary” reasoning. The Greeks and their successors never confused the disciplinary methodoi in this fashion — or identified first philosophy with certainty — a fashion that emerged after 1650 in Western Europe and is so well-described by Ian Hacking in his indispensible books, The Rise of Probability and The taming of Chance. Thinkers schooled like Hacking in British analyti philosophy or like Derrida in the texts of the French Enlightenment are not equipped to read pre-Cartesian texts or perceive the dynamic theory of focused and evidentiary human knowing that is operating everywhere in those texts. But that theory is capable of doing justice to each of the disciplines without setting them against one another. To develop a human(ist) agency within human knowers that respects the exquisite disciplinary discovery-procedures, the discipline-appropriate means of validity-testing, and the scrupulously-qualified truth claims of each of the disciplines was the goal or telos of a “liberating” education, prior to Descartes, and the “freedom” to which it refers is the capacity to think from within a given discipline (with its inherent constraints based on the nature of its to-be-knowns) — and from outside of it at the same time. This kind of tempered and chastened “wisdom” was loved by the earlier and truly liberally-educated philo-sophos, because an agency that knows itself as capable of appreciating and employing the diversity (and even incommensurability) of the disciplinary methodoi will have been innoculated against any kind of tunnel-vision or singleness of mind. And this is precisely the mark of paideia that is encountered in the earlier thinkers and educaters of the arts & sciences tratition. They would not willingly allow any of the disciplinary viae (“pathways”) to trump any of the others — save in respect to its own to-be-knowns. Galileo know this, as did Bellarmine and the other Renaissance Christian humanists, but Descartes in contrast sought to discover a single kind of “Method” that would be universally applicable to every-thing.

This is my offering of thought, in a nutshell, for the consideration and testing of all of the disciplines. Nothing would be more beautiful than to discuss with one another how our disciplinary methodoi work and how they are tested and what kind of validity they claim. But we cannot even BEGIN to do this until we have a richer and more answerable epistemic vocabulary and theoretical framework than what is provided to us by our hopelessly narrow and inadequate, Newtonian-era, theory of knowing: I mean, of course, the “modern epistemo-logy” (or “theory of knowledge”) bequeathed to all of us by the Enlightenment, which was willing to acheived a certain clarity, by banishing all contingent processes from a brand-new kind of human knowing, one outside of time and change: a time-lessly transcendent and transcendental scene of human knowing, modeled on the timeless realm of mathematics” (a timelessness aptly pointed out by particle physicist Lee Smollin, about whose courageous work I have much to say).

The “Wily Socrates” posts constituted my first attempts to convey — to those in the sciences — the early-Greek scene of knowing and its dynamic theory of focused human knowing, the theory (of irreducibly many theories) which launched the Arts & Sciences tradition in the academies of Plato and Aristotle, back in classical Athens during the 4th century BCE. It would spread out in every direction of the compass for the next 2000 years, until it was in many respects erased and whited out by the advent of a new kind of “philosophy,” one belonging peculiarly to the modern West and now exported by all of the processes of Westernization, including the modern Western-style university education. So that it is now a global legacy and liability, like every human inheritance. And an unexamined life is not worth living . . . .

I must admit that by temperament I am a celebrator, although I also hunger for every kind of genuine critique. And as a celebrator it gives me great joy to consider and write about the love of learning and the vitality of each of the focused “roads” (hodoi) of disciplinary investigation in the personal lives and agencies of pre-Cartesian thinkers and educators (and in many since Descartes, in fact). I prefer unfolding the liberating implications of the Greek theory of episteme to polemical protests against the hubris of early-modern philosophy and Enlightenment rationalism, which clearly has very little to do with the brilliant quantitative-experimental methodos Galileo was employing shortly after 1603. How this open-ended investigative methodos could have been confused and conflated with the demonstrative or apodeictic disciplines of mathematics, such as geometria and arithmetike, I can scarecely image, but the new scientia of the Cartesain era did manage to creat an unstable admixture between the investigative disciplines that travel-toward their physical to-be-knowns, in each case, and the relatively few and special disciplines that reason demonstratively from a selected set of arche, their definitions and postulates. Like the Greeks and their successors, I dearly love the purity and exactitude of the mathematic discicplines, and applaud that superb sequent of new mathematical disicplines that emerged in the five dramatic decades between 1650 and 1700: analytical geometry, the calculus, probability and decision theory, and the first of the modern symbolic logics, envisioned by Liebniz as a “universal Caracteristic.” These were all made possible by the new kind of symbolic algebraic reasoning, and by the immense power of the new algebraic equation-mark, and the manipulation of letter-sgns and other component to either side of it, so as to “leave no equation unsolved.”

No, what happened in the 17th century was more fundamental and more catstrophic than the emergence of the scientific method in physics and the splendid new mathematical disciplines. The catstrophe occurred in the field of philosophy proper. It occurred in First Philosophy. And it introduced into the arts & sciences tradition, for the first time in history, a “universal” method. Timeless. Eternal. Indubitable. Absolute. All the philosophical terms I’ve been mentioned changed their meaning and developed strong new senses after 1650. But absolute is perhaps the most telling, because it means absolutely uncontaminated by any temporal processes whatsever — whether historical, linguistic, cultural, or personal-developmental. All these were dismissed as mere “illusions imbibed in chiildhood” (as Descartes called them, and he had been since childhood temperamentally allergic to any field of investigation that had room for a variety of viewpoints). Such as all of the earlier integrative endeavors and centuries-long conversartions that had previously been carried out in the “metaphysical” disciplines of Aristotle: the ones he called first philosophy and theology. Descartes wanted to abolish all of that — and to replace those inquiries into the “highest things and things most divine” with a single, infallible, metaphysical reasoning, from which no mathematically-trained or rational mind could dissent, and for which the world was transformed into “a homogeneous field of objectivity” — inert things and objects made of “matter” and so was suited for a new Cartesain subject, who was made of pure mind. The revolution in philosophy introduced “represenation-thought,” with its theory of language as a system of 1-to-1 equivalences or adequations between objects “in the world” and the concepts “in the mind” that represented each of those objects or states of affairs. What is silently missing from this, the “dominant tradition of [modern] philosophy” (Derrida), is of course time. Lived time, and temporally enacted processes, all of which are vulnerable to the effects of accident and chance — as well as being sustained by causal organizations unfolding themselves in whatever passages of continuous temperality are requisite to each of them for their own manifestations of themselves as themselves. It was upon this dynamic physical world of dynamic unfoldings and upon physical processes manifesting themselves quite powerfully, based on the evidence, but with less than 100% degrees of normative determinacy in each case, that the early Greek-speaking peoples fixed their attention. Theoria is related the “theater,” and the Greek language was highly adapted for thinking ludidly about ongoing organizations or processes dramatically differentiating themselves in that vivid spectacle or panorama of the cosmos in which they saw so much order and beauty, along with inconstancy and fluctuation and random variation.

Each of the Greek disciplines, the Athenians had called a met-hodos — because it was regarded as a “way” (a Greek hodos, or “road”): each pathway being precisely the one  “along which” and “by means of which” (meta-) it would be possible for disciplined knowers to travel-toward the truths of their be-knowns, respectively, in each case. Do you happen to remember the “sublime” Parmenides, and his heroic narration concerning the Way of Truth? This was the poem whose epic language first established the philosophical Journey of Knowing at the very core of what constitutes a meaningful human life.  For Hypatia or Cicero or Ibn Sina or Aquinas and Dante.  Not to mention for the thinkers and artists we know as the Renaissance Christian humanists, among whom Galileo was one . . . 

The many distinctive and various Greek “ways” or “pathways” for knowing would be called the via later on, during Latin epochs, and the terms hodoi or methodoi were similarly translated into languages such as Arabic and Persian and Hebrew — everywhere, in fact, where the Athenian vision of a certain bracing education that liberated precisely by means of the irreducible differences between the various modes of investigation, and their to-be-knowns) was welcomed and embraced. Or it wuld be better to say that this was the case during the first 2000 years or so of the Arts & Sciences tradition . . . For, after that, the understandings of philosophy, and of the arts and sciences, changed fundamentally, at least in the West.

When the relaunched website is ready, I will post the link HERE.

At the same time, I will list links there to the major discussions on this earlier weblog, this one you are at, so that you can easily find them, if you wish. And also to the Pages where in 2007 I put some old lectures on the history of literary theory, which emphasized Ferdinand de Saussure and the crucial dynamics of double articulation in language. (Something which the classical Athenian philosophers were fascinated by, and very attentive to. ) These links will be posted HERE soon. Or you can find them in the Archives

Update from Janet, September 2011

A former student asked me here last week: do you plan to publish something on this “incredibly important” conversation?  He meant the conversation between science and faith and the lively conversation with physicists (and one biologist) that took place on between 2007-09. So here’s an update on what I’ve been doing since then.

The conversation attempted here is important, I agree, and yes, I am planning to publish things related to it, and growing out of it. 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 the Greek texts of Plato and Aristotle, but surveying the entire course of the arts & sciences (liberal arts) tradition in Western history and more broadly. These essays are addressed primarily to literary theorists in my own field, but I try to keep the natural scientists and mathematicians always in view as well. So I discuss 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. [Update in 2018:  This didn’t happen. I sensed that the essays were still too narrowly focused–hence ineffective for my purposes. As it turned out, I needed to do a lot more thinking, until 2018, to understand how to show that they were tied in the larger historical & philosophic analysis.]

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 Hollow Men” — We are getting Dollhouse all wrong!

Okay, I think everyone is missing the boat on “The Hollow Men,” the “almost” finale of Season 2 of Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse” on Fox TV. It’s the almost finale because we still have the 13th episode, another Epitaph episode set 10 years in the future — but with flashbacks.

So here’s the thing. We have forgotten that Caroline is now back in her body and in Echo’s head and we have been failing to note the sign-posting and obvious cues — I guess not so obvious if we aren’t noticing them? — scattered throughout the episode, and especially the clearly parodic nature of the hero-escaping-the- bomb-blast-while-running-from-destruction scene. Most recently, Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes used the well-convention action-film convention of the slow-motion sailing through space (ahead of the fire), followed by a sudden cut away to the hero and friends, all perfectly unharmed….

This exaggerated parody of the trope of escape from an explosion signals to me that we are not simply to take the scene at face value, but to take it with a grain of salt and look at it a bit more closely. The obvious “cheesiness” of the explosion scene and of the cut-away to an unfluffed Echo standing (not running) outside the building are reminiscent of the similar parody of genre conventions in “Instinct,” written by the same team, when we see the avenging mother with a child in her arms and lightening and thunder gratuitously starting up in the background.  Also “cheesey,” as many complained, unless we see it as a foil to the following action, when Echo “recovers herself” in spite of her programming (all that primitive, atavistic, maternal rage and fear) and instead listens carefully to the child’s father, evaluating what he is saying and what he is willing to do in this extremity. Echo looks down at the knife in her hand and says, “This isn’t me.” Then with sanity and poise she gives away her child to the father who genuinely loves it, which he has just proven by offering to give his life in order to save his son’s.

I believe that in “The Hollow Men” we are not supposed to be seduced by the Great American Movie Convention that whatever the good guys do in order do overcome the bad guys is by definition therefore good. Good simply because “we” are doing it against “them.” Or as Topher so succintly states it in an earlier scene: “The bros before those that aren’t bros….” The theme of the good guys embracing the bad guys’ protocols also occurs in this episode when Sierra and Anthony decide (despite conflicted feelings) to use the chair — and when Ballard has Mellie take up (and become) a weapon of destruction — triggering her through love and trust to kill, right after we have just watched her being triggered by Adele’s formula to transform into a mindless assassin.

No, our scooby gang has not rescued the world at the end of “The Hollow Men,” and furthermore, the world is not going to end with a bang but with a whimper, as T. S. Eliot’s poem has it:  “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.”

The Big Bang has of course just been accomplished — by turning a human being into a doll and then ordering him in his defenseless trusting state to blow himself up, along with the Rossum mainframe. Is this Echo who adopts this ferociously vindictive strategy?  Is it Echo who smashes Clyde/Whiskey/Saunders’ head against the wall hard enough and frequently enough to murder her? No, this folks, is Caroline! And Caroline has been able to seduce Echo into these horrific actions because of Echo’s own passionate and inflamed sense of betrayal by Boyd, because he has used her own trust pitilessly to doom her.

So I believe it is Caroline — not Echo — who has chosen to take her ferocious revenge, in the process demonstrating the truth of Adele’s assessment that Caroline is “the most dangerous kind of person in the world, an idealist.” But the whimper that follows the bang is how the world will really end; it is what we hear from Echo, regaining herself in the aftermath of the revenge, expressing her dawning doubt and the return of the moral awareness that has always distinguished her and which she has earned through suffering all the lives and destinies of so many other human beings: “Did we save the world?” “I guess so….?”

Many Dollhouse watchers have complained that “nothing happens” in that widely disliked earlier episode “Instinct” that aired second in Season Two But something very important did happen in that episode; something that I think is genuinely apropos to “saving the world.” Echo overcame her programming and exercised her own distinctive sanity and compassion. The very fact that we can watch her suddenly behaving without it — in the climax of this finale — and not seem to “notice” any difference demonstrates that we have not been watching this as moral drama on its own (Jossian) terms. I suspect that it is Caroline who will bring about the thoughtpocalypse, and Echo who will take up the struggle to find some safe haven from it in “Epitaph II.”

One commentator has called “The Hollow Men” a “balls-out Shakespearian tragedy,” and others have compared the malevolent villainy and the body count of this episode to Shakespearean tragedy as well. But it is in the characterization of Boyd that the humanist tradition in which Shakespeare’s moral universe dwells is most clearly delineated. I have read many complaints that Boyd is simply a madman and has no real motivation, and that therefore his being the Big Bad is ill-conceived.  But this runs counter to an underlying ethical truth that would be equally the case for any ultimate big bad in human history. However the real apocalypse arrives, it will be motivated by only one thing, the same thing that motivates Iago or Lady McBeth: self-aggrandizement willfully pursued at the expense of other human beings.

Boyd’s every action is explained by the runaway instinct for self-preservation that dominates him, along with the fear and insecurity of other like himself arising to dethrone him (Shakespeare’s “heavy is the head that wears the crown,” anyone?  Richard III?) — including the low level of security at Rossum headquarters and all the other supposedly unrealistic details in these final episodes.  There is no trust among thieves in the end. The show, like Shakespearean drama, has been genre-wise and convention-aware and plays fast and loose with verisimilitude in order to chronicle the human passions and the long moral adventure of humankind.

Boyd like most of us projects his own habitual thinking patterns onto the world around him. He wants to wipe out all the other would-be “Boyds” in advance of their being able to get the drop on him. It is “me against everyone else,” which is the ultimate form, most tragically, of “us against them.”

One of the writers for Dollhouse has been quoted as saying:  “This is a show about what it means to be human. If that doesn’t do it for you, what are you — robots?” I’m afraid that it is scary how much in need of a humanist moral education we all seem to be, even we hardcore Whedon fans who have stuck with Dollhouse through all its ups and downs. The apocalypse is inevitable unless the mass of mankind can take the road of moral evolution that Echo has been walking. It doesn’t matter how it comes, only why.  That Why will be that the final good guys in the last times are willing to be just as bad as the bad guys, in order to defeat them. In that case, there is nothing but defeat in our future.

Who are the hollow men alluded to in the title of this episode, “headpiece stuffed with straw”? It isn’t the heads of Rossum, who no longer exist.  It is Caroline and those who wait for her outside the corporate headquarters. And it is all of us who watch Caroline’s revenge take place and fail to realize that our leader Echo, our new Eve, has fallen (at least for a moment) into sin and death.

Discussion of “Belle Chose” — Episode 3 of Dollhouse (2.03)


Hi folks. I’m bringing to the top here, a Dollhouse discussion that’s been going on in the comments to the previous post. Please join in. Click here for background music!

Absolutely. I agree, Janeaire.

The “belle chose” reference, by the way and off the top of my head,  is to the Miller’s Tale, and “Alycoun” is — forgive my French — a conniving little bitch (sorry) who plays around with a lusty lover while playing a rather cruel trick (but a very funny one) on her elderly old husband. On the other hand, she’s also the victim of a May-December marriage. At least, that’s the way I recall the tale and it it important that it is told by one of the two “low-class” working characters who are on the pilgrimage. Chaucer’s self-aware, pre-Whedon reflections on genre conventions and social class!

It is possible, given the allusion here to The Miller’s Tale — oh, I forgot, there is “a clerk of Oxenford,” in other words a university teacher, in that tale — that little Kiki is playing around with her sexual power to tease this much older man. Or is he her chosen, sophisticated partner? In any case, she certainly “gets” the Chaucerian tale, which is very raunchy and X-rated, by the way, which they are using as code between them.

UPDATE: there are two Allisouns in Canterbury Tales.  The one our professor is thinking of  (I watched the episode again) is the Wife of Bath, who is a much-married lady who likes to make her husbands work for their living (in the bedroom). She wears spurs and is a “whip.” The lines Echo reads in his office are describing her. Now the tale she tells is fascinating, a fairy tale about “what women want most.”  She herself argues that it is mastery over their husbands. The tale suggests instead that it is self-sovereignty; when the Knight gives the Ugly Old Hag he has married the choice of who she will be, it breaks the spell and she becomes beautiful and faithful.

Some commenters out there (on whedonesque) are saying that at least the professor didn’t exercise the power of his position to coerce one of his real students. He turned it into a *harmless* sexual fantasy instead. I have a lot of trouble with that. Is it “better” to hire a programed human body-and-soul and use her instead?  (As Matt did in the dream girl episode, “Ghost,” the pilot episode last season.) On the other hand, how do we even know that the client asked for a full sexual encounter? Maybe the tag “romance” on this engagement wasn’t simply code for “sex.” Echo rises from the chair saying she “wants to dance.” Could the professor have wanted and paid for a “dance”? A “lap dance” so to speak, from out of his own era of medieval history….  (We might also ask where they got the Kiki imprint from, but that might be going beyond the show’s conceits, which we must happily accept and stay within.)

Also, I disagree with viewers who are talking about how Paul Ballard was aroused by seeing Echo naked. Of course, no doubt he was, but I don’t think that was the point. He was deeply uncomfortable with the whole inappropriateness and invasiveness of the fact that this gorgeous, sexually mature woman standing before him had a childlike mind that could not know that she was not a little girl — or that her nakedness might be sacred and precious and not to be taken lightly or casually. (Going back to how I think Paul Ballard treasured his loving intimacy with Mellie, before he realized she was a doll, and that he enslaved himself to the Dollhouse, which he hated to do, in order to set her free. Because he loves her. I don’t think that was a casual relationship for him at all. And he’s disgusted at himself for his rejection of her because she was something she couldn’t help being at the point when he met her) Anyway, that shower scene is a kind of allusive play on Adam and Eve, who in their state of innocence “did not know they were naked.” Ballard is totally opposed in every fiber of his being to what he is doing as Echo’s handler, and being inside the dollhouse. And his assurances to Echo that he will protect her and “bring down the dollhouse” are helpless gestures. She doesn’t even know yet what “bringing down the dollhouse” means. Yet.

Echo is feeling her way (emotionally, or empathetically as you say, Janeaire) to the emotional truth of her situation. Sometimes reading even the comments of Joss fans, I feel some people are being too crude-fibered in their responses to the action in this series; their dismissiveness and their summarily reductive comments kind of wound me…. What’s more important, they aren’t doing justice to the traditional humanist themes of this show, which cherish human dignity and autonomy.

The best thing about this episode was the way that viewers at last could, if they chose, connect with Echo. Some are refusing to do so even here, and finding her “earnest” morality in her final scene with the victimized women to be simply a ho-hum plot gimmick (Echo’s getting a soul, we’ve seen this before, so what?). This is a kind of defensive distancing, like the “eww” reaction to the breast-feeding episode. If we aren’t looking at ourselves in the mirror at every juncture in the episode (any episode) we aren’t getting it. Or so I believe. Actually, I don’t understand how people fail to identify with and care about the dolls in their “wiped” states. They are not blank slates. They are not personality-less. They are children. They are trying to follow, like children playing self-consciously “tea party,” what they suppose must be the script of the adult world around them, and their naivete about what their world is really like is the most shattering commentary of all.

That necessity to look at the “mata” level applies to the lines of dialogue given to the women in the cage, which some are saying was too flat and broad and stereotypical. Here again, every time you think something is not working, take a look for the commentary the action makes upon itself. These are ordinary people under duress. And one of them turns out to be a genuine leader and a hero, and another turns out to be totally and viciously without scruples or conscience. Just a typical slice of humanity…. That’s pretty edgy, really.

Finally, I’m pretty sure, Janeaire, that Terry has flat-lined in the final scene. And there’s a whole other possibility to Echo’s “Goodness gracious” comment at the end. (It isn’t just that there’s still a serial killer inside of her — creepy!! I agree with you that there’s much more to it than that) Echo’s comment could be made to Terry, and it could be irony. Echo sees that poetic justice has occurred (or been carried out), and that the monster won’t hurt any more women and their little boys. “Goodness gracious,” she says to him. She’s glad. I mean, that part of us, the reptilian part of us that acts without empathy, in some sense has to be put to death or “contained” inside of each of us. Your reactions, Janeaire, are on the side of Mercy, while I guess I am enunciating the claims of Justice on the other side of the equation. Mercy and Justice must “kiss each other” (and that is called Grace)…. But Echo’s single witty utterance can mean all these things. It’s a proffer that’s multi-valued.

So, what do the rest of you think. Join us!

Joss Whedon: from the start, Dollhouse was different…

dollhouseposter2Gorgeously haunting Dollhouse  music: (Do not miss it)

You can also click on this link and  share this appeal with friends.

Dollhouse, folks, is a brilliant show about identity formation and about a certain technological society racing heedlessly towards apocalypse. Besides, it’s a total hoot!  (It’s also Joss Whedon’s most feminist series and yet it’s regularly called “misogynistic” and “anti-feminist” by those who don’t think about the show’s conceits — and their own gut reactions — on a “meta” level. Okay, that’s the news flash. Click on the link!  So now I go back to being all serious and professorial….

Joss Whedon has been responsible for some incomparable viewing experiences on television, including those many poignant seasons of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” empowering a generation of young women, and the scattered episodes of the scintillating “Firefly,” creating a great science fiction feature film (“Serenity”) and a “Browncoats” movement that will not die — devoted to fighting the horrendous conditions suffered by  women around the globe, and to promoting reading and creative writing programs here in the U.S.

These shows were never watched by wide audiences at the times when their episodes aired (3 to 5 million households was typical). But these series were nonetheless works of art and had great cumulative impact, especially in the lives of those who loved them. Their DVD and reruns have been giving them far larger audiences and effects ever since.

From the start, Dollhouse was different. I focused on that difference (as I saw it) over at, in a review that for me was also a labor of love and a tribute to Whedon’s artistic vision. It was also a plea to Fox and the world at large to save Dollhouse — and shortly thereafter, to everyone’s astonishment, Dollhouse was given a second season, the lowest-rated show ever to be renewed.

Whedon’s latest project, starring Eliza Dushku (“Faith” on Buffy and Angel), had a rocky production history last season, and its viewership consistently fell off from its hopeful premiere audience of more than 5 million. Whedon fans (and others who had heard the hype) tuned in to see what the show was all about. Disappointment abounded and some shock and anger was voiced. The show was “misogynistic” and dealt with a bunch of “likable rapists.” The “eww” factor was a dramatic problem, but those of us who stuck with the show agreed that the series really found its feet around episode 6 and then grew steadily more impressive through its final aired episode, #12.  By then many critics were genuinely intrigued and on board. The unaired 13th episode, “Epitaph One,” became available in July on the Season 1 DVD and generated some real buzz, if mostly among TV critics and Whedonites.

However, I loved the artistic vision of this show from the very first episode. As a Shakespeare professor, Joss’s artistic decision here struck me as similar to Shakespeare’s move from his highly successful early comedies to the much darker “problem” plays, especially Measure For Measure, whose plot concerns a brother, imprisoned and facing death for a sexual misdemeaner (sex with his betrothed), entreating his sister to save him by agreeing to spend a night with the Magistrate, a much older man who is obsessed with her virginity. (“You only have to do it once,” and then you can pretend it never happened….)

I value Whedon’s series because it has given me many moments of moral tension deeper than any I’ve experienced before in scripted television. Sometimes I am so compelled or shaken by a scene that I cry out or weep, and that’s usually when the next scene comes along and delivers an even greater punch. Measure For Measure also masqueraded as a popular entertainment. It also combined stark tragedy and disturbing moral ambiguity with its genre appeals to romance and suspense, all of them offered with a titillating edge of the sordid or risque. When Dollhouse misfires, it usually does so by failing to integrate its generic rip-roaring action scenes (and the deliberately exploited glamour and sexual allure of its cast members) with its serious intent. There’s sometimes an awkward incongruity that hasn’t managed to rise to the level of frisson.

Dollhouse did achieve this seriousness last season, though, and it is still doing it this season, despite the unevenness of some episodes and its occasional scenic misses along with its stupendous and unforgettable dead-on hits. What I continue to notice, though, is that even the show’s most loyal fans tend to view the “eww” factor implicit in the show’s premise as a failing, whenever it crops up, when this is at the very heart of what the show is all about. Whedon is pushing his audiences harder than he’s ever pushed them before; all the episodes make viewers uncomfortable. It’s deliberate and it’s art. And that’s precisely why the audience continues to drop off, even as the show continues to explore issues of human identity-formation and the body’s relationship to the soul in endlessly creative and unprecedented ways.

This show is supposed to make you go “eww.” And then to think about it! (Viewers, let’s try to exercise some of that “negative capability” the poet Keats recommended — who urged us to linger with the questions and with the tragedy for awhile, as Dark Star is currently in the theatres to remind us….) What does it say about our society, after all, that a supermodel (Dushku) who is breastfeeding a baby will send viewers running?  Or ask yourself, is it perfectly okay for a high-flier to have a weekend fling with a gorgeous young girl who thinks he’s genuinely interested in her (he’s not, and this scenario happens all the time in “real life”) — but then, if the same girl turns out to be an (unknowing) birthday present paid for and provided by a wealthy friend, it’s rape?  It’s okay for our society to tailor young girls to be the dream date, but not for the Dollhouse to do it for money?  Joss is disrupting our accepted assumptions, and he always has been with this show. (I discuss the “American dream girl situation” just mentioned, from episode 1, here.)

Dollhouse is all about making us feel uncomfortable.  When Joss says it deals with “sexual exploitation and human trafficking and how compromised we all are” — why do we wonder why the ratings keep falling?  This isn’t the show’s failings. This is our unwillingness to welcome television drama as being something challenging and essential to our moral and human development, the way the Athenians once viewed their great civic tragic dramas. And Joss & Crew do entertain us at the same time, after all. Last night, in an episode called “Instinct” — as in maternal instinct that is — there was a great spoof on the conventions of the killer madwoman, who shows up in the midst of a sudden lightning storm and is armed with a ridiculously large and gleaming kitchen knife. “Echo” looks down at the knife she is holding, along with a baby, and eventually experiences a gentle moment of recognition.”This… isn’t me,” she says quietly, and she drops the knife on the floor. But is anybody listening? This is a person — a humanistic subject seeking the freedom of self-actualization — who is trying to transcend any of the stereotypical and reductive roles laid out for her to follow.

Mentoring a nephew of mine recently, I recommended that he take an on-line Briggs-Meyers personality test, as a tool for determining the kinds of jobs that might best fit his natural tendencies and genuine passions. All of this test’s personality categories possess obvious and important social roles within the fabric of society, and my nephew might find himself among the “Guardians,” for example, who constitute up to 40% of any population taking the test. These are the folks who crave and enjoy an orderly routine. They are extremely dependable and consistently dutiful, at work and at home. Without them, what would any society do?

Out of curiosity, I took the test for the first time myself.  And I ended up in a tiny 1-2% segment of the typical human population. These are creative people who do a lot of thinking, but they also want their efforts to result in protecting the helpless and vulnerable in the larger community. It occurred to me to wonder…. Maybe we are the small (but likewise irreplacable) group that this show is feeding and nourishing. At least there’s no difficulty understanding why, unlike most viewers, I found from the start that I care deeply aboutEcho-Dushku when she is in her innocent “doll” state (when her mind is “wiped”) and identify with her also when something inside her keeps compelling her to go to the aid of others. (The Echo/Caroline deep inside of Echo realized that the baby she was protecting was in no danger whatsoever from the person standing in front of her and offering his life for its safety.) To me, Echo is unforgettable in her most innocent and childlike states. As Adele says, “an active is the purest soul among us.”

In previous shows, of course, Joss appealed to the rebels and artists also,  but he could count on pulling in additional viewers with the trademark Whedon snarkiness and wit, and by assembling a “family” out of a wide and varied cast of lovable characters, each character appealing to one segment of the fan-base. Dollhouse does contains some remarkable characters — my favorite is Topher, the insufferable genius computer-geek, or Adele, whose icy career-woman executive is remarkably multi-layered and unfathomable with her overwhelming range of competencies. But these characters are definitely the bad guys, or are they?

So this Whedon enterprise is deliberately attempting to do something much more dangerous and more breath-takingly difficult than anything he’s tried before. That’s why I compare Dollhouse to Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure, in which Shakespeare deals with the same repugnant issues of sexual exploitation and hypocrisy, along with other themes that are more (elevatingly) humanistic.

The ratings numbers for the first two episodes of the new fall season are terribly disappointing. But they are also perfectly explicable, I think, in that this show is asking a great deal of its viewers and is taking them into uncomfortable and liminal territories every week. In the process, it is building an incredibly thought-provoking mythology and a major narrative that extends into a fascinating and apocalyptic future. The already ambiguous and surprising characters are acquiring unusual layers of depth, and they are often far more ambiguous than we ever see in Battlestar Gallatica, for instance. Joss rightly applauds BG for its daring and its dramatic strengths. But BG never prods us to go out on the limbs where Dollhouse takes us every week. Despite flaws and defects, this is powerful art, and I think it is working powerfully for those who are willing to go where usually only the tragic drama is willing and able to take us. (So maybe it needs to be assigned in classrooms, like Shakespeare and Dante. That’s often the first time modern young people get hooked into anything that isn’t simply easily-digestible entertainment….)

Joss has made this show extremely cheap for Fox to produce, in order to keep Dollhouse a going concern. The writers, actors, and stage crew are devoted to it, to the riskiness and wildness of this ride that they (and we) are on. This show deserves to keep its unenviable Friday night niche at Fox….  It’s working for some of us, and like Shakespeare’s problem plays, and his tragedies, these pieces of art are not likely to be going to fade away in the future.

If we get a future, that is.  Dollhouse is seriously asking this question too.

Sometimes art seems to be the only light in the darkness, yet it still depends on its wealthy patrons. The nagging fear, as Joss admitted recently, is that on television he will only be permitted to invent if he is willing to do nothing more significant than “running the daycare on the Death Star.”

The conquest of “matter” by energy… Bulgakov blog conference

No doubt everyone can tell that I wrote the previous post after a long period of being quite ill (from this chronic pericarditis of mine).

Now that I have been feeling much better for a number of weeks, the crafted essays are back on track. But I hope ways will emerge to keep the liveliness of the classroom give-and-take, to keep the conversational and the occasional….

Along those lines, please let me refer you, my readers to the blog conference on Russian Sophiology (the theology found in Sophia, the Wisdom of God and other works written by the Russian Orthodox theologian Sergei Bulgakov) that Dan and others have been hosting for the past two weeks over at

The conference is concluding with a dialogue between myself and Joshua Delpech-Ramey, and you will find Part One here,dealing with Sophia in the Renaissance (Augustine and Donne). (Thank you, Joshua, for conceiving of this conversational and occasional setting.) Earlier days of the conference have dealt with the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary, and created beauty in relationship to the beautiful life of the triune Godhead. I think you will find some very creative and nourishing theological meditation is to be found in Bulgakov, especially for poets, perhaps….. And it is explicated in some lovely papers over there.

In my part of the dialogue (Part Two), you will see that I am carrying on some of the conversations between science and faith (especially with physics) for which I founded this weblog…. Everything I say over there carries within it the imprint of the spirited conversations we carried on here for a year or so — on QM and the history of physics. (Thanks again for those conversations.) I will be posting more of the fruits they have borne in my thinking, here, in weeks to come.)

What to do?

I haven’t posted for some time…. But I’ve been working at my laptop and looking out from time to time down along the slow bend of the river, watching as that river just keeps on flowing past, the Heraclitean river of endless change that nonetheless enacts in its shining ripples the wave equations of Schrodinger….

What to do? I read and think, and I write and I write. It is sacramental time, the time of deep communion. What I have always longed for, and now I experience it daily and experience gratitude for every event and moment of a life that has managed to bring me here.

But how do I share this with others? When I try to draw things together into chiseled and elegant essays to put into scholarly journals, the thought keeps spilling over those bounds I try to impose, and I am back at that cutting edge where thought presses further and further into that place where it needs to go.

If I had time, if I had time and the energy I had in times past, perhaps I could be a disciplined “editor” of myself and let my essays give me a voice in those forums most suited to understand me. Perhaps I could.

I have been trying out a new venue lately — speaking, into a video-recorder, beside the river, speaking with you, my ideal audience, an audience that is not co-identical with the audience in those forums most suited to understand me….

Perhaps one or two of those videotapes will show up here….

Perhaps I will post here in written words some of that thinking that pours into my laptop but is wild and unedited…. The editing that I would put upon this thought is the editing that comes when the mutual energies of minds are gathered around a text, or for me, all of those most difficult and beautiful texts in the long history of the arts and sciences adventure…. That editing is alive; it enables us to check and to interact with every gesture, every venture, even as we make those gestures, those interactions. It gives us the dunamis for putting every determination under erasure while we are determining it, thus recapitualating the eery yet utterly mundane mystery of our communal language as it establishes its miraculous delimitations with tools ever open to the arbitrary, the what is as of yet the still arbitrary….

This was the nightmare that lurked behind the dis-covery of the “integral and discrete object of our linguistics” for Saussure, that spector of endless change, but it did not abash the minds of the great Socratic adventurers, Plato and Aristotle, who knew that the arts were equal to the challenge so long as they were kept within a human arena, the city-state and its exigencies — but no one had thought of any other arena but the city-state — and of course, the realm of personal ultimacy (the salvation of one’s soul even when the city stumbles). That “other” realm (the realm of a knowledge that would be universal and absolute, perhaps the most peculiar of all the “wind-eggs” of our history) would await the acknowledged geniuses of the 17th century for its begetting….

When I most require a classroom and that presence of minds gathered around a text — that receptacle that is the deepest medium for thought and the place most full of living substance, of ousia, I cannot enter one because I lack the strength and health to do so.

What to do?

People of science, people of faith, please…

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.)

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

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

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.

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

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?)