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 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.

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?)

Good News from Janet…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

David Lindley’s “Where Does the Weirdness Go?”

For those who followed the long debate about quantum mechanics and the paradigm shift from Newtonianism to the post-Einstein world of physics that I proposed in Part 4 of my opening lit theory lecture, I’d like to recommend David Lindley’s book on QM and on the emergence of “decoherence” as the current standard interpretation. (That discussion follows Part 4 under Pages.)

Lindley seems (to me) to line up precisely with what Gavin tried to explain to us more recently, about why decoherence is “in” and David Bohm’s hidden variables theory is “out.” He explains the history of QM and the Copenhagen interpretation in its original form (Niels Bohr) and in its current form, updated with decoherence. I now understand why working physicists don’t expect a deeper underlying theory to emerge here to account for the seeming anomalies of QM. I see how and why these QM problems aren’t like the late 19th-century “anomalies” that led to Planck’s constant and a whole new theory (special relativity).  So this helps me with Roger Penrose too.

I will try to post some excerpts here, because, as Gavin struggled valiantly to do, Lindley responds to the more philosophical questions we all have about QM and in the process manages to account for the working QM physicist’s disquiet with the way that we “innumerate humanists” seem to be running away with QM implications in half-baked ways….

Lindley is not argumentative or polemical and his accounts are amazingly readable. He manages to be explanatory on a high level in a manner graspable by the reader who is not up to all of the intricate mathematics. Most of all, he fills in for us with perspectives and outlooks that speak to the inevitable philosophical questions that humanists and theists will have.

For instance, I now understand that Niels Bohr did seem to suggest a certain mysticism about QM “measurement” (as I thought I had learned 15 years ago) but that it is no longer applicable today, because quantum decoherence expands “measurement” to being a constant natural process in the physical world.

I think everyone should read this book (instead of those Stanford Philosophical articles so dissed by Gavin!) Thanks to Jennifer for this recommendation!

It’s Time for “Silence — by Shusaku Endo

[Spoiler alert. Finish the novel before you begin this discussion. You don’t want to know what’s going to happen. Some background is here. ]

I finished reading the novel Silence by the great Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo about two weeks ago and I was overwhelmed. It is so beautiful and so profoundly disturbing. To me, these are the marks of a deep grace, because such grace is the kind that always overturns things and makes us question what we thought we knew before….

Did I really read this novel years ago? It is all so fresh and new. The climactic moment in which Jesus’ words to Judas are given a new meaning, on p. 190 when Father Rodrigues is deciding whether he can hear Kichijiro’s confession, hit me right between the eyes. I was really stunned. “What you must do, go and do quickly….” I wonder how others responded to this climactic moment in the book? Or was this the climactic moment in the book for you? If not, what was? And why?

Ever since I finished the book, I’ve been mulling over the questions I was left with by Endo. My questions might not be the same ones you had. But I’ll mention a few of mine, to get the discussion going.

First, I was really struck by how marvelously well Shusaku Endo drew me into this novel. We begin from a place far distant from Japan (in every way), and then we go with the Portuguese padres on that long sea journey, and finally we arrive on the mysterious shore of Japan itself. Now the terrifying threat of capture and torture is hanging over our heads at every instant, and we are kept in suspense as we travel with Father Rodrigues through the gradual, step-by-step revelation of Japan: the actual place as it was to some of the people who lived in it at that time.

As a Westerner, I could not help but deeply identify with the Western priest, as Endo drew me into making this journey along with Father Rodrigues.

But what must this journey have been like for a native of Japan? Or for any non-Western reader?

Endo has set up the novel so that it draws me as a Westerner into a shocking realization of what the preaching of the Christian gospel meant for those who embraced it in 17th century Japan. But how must this same journey have unfolded for Endo’s own Japanese readers? What is most shocking for readers who approach the book from the standpoint of Japan being one’s homeland and the foreigners “invading it” from the outside?

I wonder how much you still identify with Father Rodrigues as the protagonist of this book? I would really like to hear about other people’s journeys through this novel. It must be a very different journey, too, for those who are Christians, whether Japanese or Western, than it is for those who are not Christians?

John Gardner, the great American novelist, said that there are really only “two basic plots” in all of world literature: “Someone goes on a journey” and “A stranger rides into town.”

The brilliant Shusaku Endo has both of these plot-structures running concurrently in this novel. Where did you find yourself situated in this unfolding journey?

Another question. How do you feel about that powerful but ugly phrase, the “swamp” of Japan? Does anyone happen to know the original Japanese word and its connotations? (Is it a rice-paddy type of swamp? Does Japan have “swamps”?) How do you feel about this characterization of Japan by the cruel magistrate Inoue?

Thinking about how the magistrate used this metaphor got me to wondering whether Inoue himself is a violent hater of the West only. Or does he violently hate Japan as well? Is he trying to defend Japan or destroying it, just as much as he thought the foreigners would do?

Finally, what about all the questions we have at the end of the novel about Father Rodrigues and Father Ferreira as the camera (as it were) pans slowly back and away, and as 17th-century Japan fades out of our sight, back into the dusty old records of the historical archives.

I was left haunted by the feeling that the two fathers were not alike. That they did what they did for very different reasons, or in a very different spirit. But if this difference between them is real, it must have been indicated by Endo rather subtly. I couldn’t exactly put my finger on the sources of this feeling, so I kept asking myself why I felt this chasm between the two. Did anyone else feel this way about the two padres at the end of the book?

The archival records at the very end inform us that both padres worked feverishly to prevent any more missionaries from getting into Japan. What were their motivations? Were their motivations the same?

Then there’s Kichijiro. We can’t forget him. Just try to imagine this novel without him. The narrative wouldn’t be able to unfold in an narrative-action sense, or thematically, either. As the Judas figure, he raises all the theological questions Judas raises, and he also serves as a great foil for Father Rodrigues, constantly mirroring the changes going on inside of Rodrigues as his attitudes toward Kichijiro evolve. (What is the Japanese meaning of his name?)

Thinking about Kichijiro, I started to realize that every figure in the novel makes a contribution to the growth of Father Rodriguez. Endo depicts the spiritual pilgrimage of this character in such a way that he was constantly reminding me of my medieval and Renaissance European writers on the journey of Everyman…. (They’re the ones I’ve always taught.) As with those European artists, I thought that for Endo, even Rodrigues’ enemies – or maybe especially his enemies – contribute in necessary ways to that inward journey he is on. Does it even make sense to you to talk about a spiritual journey here?

I might as well admit that the story of Father Rodrigues was so powerful for me that it almost made the title of the novel seem ironic. All of us have felt, whether we believe or do not believe, the terrible silences of God. (Think of Elie Wiesel’s Night and the Holocaust for the Jewish people.) But the breaking of God’s silence in this novel was the most striking and transforming part of it, at least for me. What did you feel?

Father Rodrigues’ apostasy has been controversial. Some Christians readers have condemned it, saying that neither Rodrigues nor Ferreira ever had genuine faith in the first place. How do you feel about this?

In the early 17th century, at precisely the same time in which the events in this novel are set, John Donne was writing: “Sometimes not to be a martyr is itself a martyrdom.” Was Father Rodrigues a Christian martyr?

By the way, what about the many, many physical martyrs in this book? Isn’t it extraordinary, as history shows over and over again, just what people will endure under duress? Sometimes out of faith, and sometimes too out of anger and defiance. Please pardon me, but I kept thinking, “This is exactly why John McCain is right about torture.” After all, McCain knew this from personal experience. Torture doesn’t work. Even the magistrate Inuoue realized this. He needed to find something more dramatic: the apostasy of the very priests themselves.

Even in his early days in Japan, Rodrigues told the Japanese converts to trample the fumie if necessary. I think that’s a very telling moment in the narrative and I’d love to discuss it. (p. 54). And also Father Garrp’s swimming out to drown with the “basket worms” lying wrapped in those mats in the boat on pp. 132-34.

If only Father Rodrigues had been faced with such a relatively “easy” decision to make as Father Garrp faced.

Instead, Rodrigues’ own fate, so skillfully engineered by the magistrate Inoue (with help from Father Ferreira), was much more diabolical. Rodrigues’ most cunning adversary understood Rodrigues very, very well – as persecutors generally do understand their victims, since persecutors are always denying and trying to annihilate something they are struggling against within themselves. (I need to apply this to myself…as Hi and others have pointed out to me….) Anyway, what do you think about the choices confronting Rodrigues, when the Japanese Christians are suffering so terribly, suspended over the pit?

In fact, it is Inoue who poses the most crucial theological question in this novel, the question of Christianity’s essential distinctive. This happens on p. 187 when Inoue asserts his own understanding of the “difference between Christ and Buddha.” But Father Rodrigues thinks of Inoue, “he doesn’t understand Christianity.”

Maybe it was in this scene that I began to feel Father Rodrigues had parted company from Father Ferreira…?

This pivotal scene also reminded me of the perceptive remarks about the “hard edge” that Western religions seem to have for those raised in an Eastern religious climate, made by Hi when he referred to this novel as an example of the dissonance between Christianity and the Japanese. What do you think about this ? Or about Inoue’s role in this scene and throughout the novel?

By the way, to whom is that longer speech of Father Rodrigues addressed? The one at the top of p. 187?

When Father Rodrigues finally makes his choice, he has already been told by Father Ferreira that the victims have renounced their faith repeatedly. Only Rodrigues has the power to save them. Now maybe this is a really strange question, but I wondered, would a Christian have the right to rescue them, if they had not recanted already? To take their martyrdom away from them?

Shusaku Endo, though, chose to avoid this dilemma. Instead, he chose to focus his novel on a different and perhaps larger dilemma. Is Inoue right about the nature of Christianity? Or is Father Ferreira right, and has Japan in the end changed the gospel of Father Rodrigues into something essentially non-Christian? Is it even possible for Christianity to remain itself, in a cultural setting as different as Japan?

Ultimately, the answers each of us arrive at will probably depend upon our answer to the even deeper question Shusaku Endo raises in this novel. What is the essential nature of Christianity?

Calling all Quantum Theorists and Cosmologists who can be patient with innumerate humanists and theists…

Hi, gentle readers. I’m moving another comment thread up onto my front page where it belongs. Please jump into the conversation — just as long as you can be very respectful to science, and very respectful to both humanism and theism, okay? All right then. Ready? Set? Go!

Thank you so much for joining in here, Maria! Welcome to the discussion.

Now Gavin, be patient here with all of us, and don’t take yield to the temptation to take these questionings that non-physicists have as simply some kind of New Age occultism, okay? Continue to be your tolerant and patient self, okay? (If you don’t, I will have to remind you that YOU lean toward many-worlds (gasp!) as the best interpretation of wave collapse — and that sounds extremely “New Agey” to most people, even though it is strictly mathematical, right?)

Maria, I am better at responding when I’ve had time to ponder, so I’ll get back to you later on, except to say that many very good minds (including scientific ones) have seen quantum indeterminacy as opening up a universe that is much more open to freedom and spontaneity than was thought in Newtonian times. And eventually, when we know more about QM, I think it may shed some brand new light on very old metaphysical questions. (BTW, I was just wondering this morning some questions along the lines of what you are saying.) So I will get back to you. Instead, I am now going to ask Gavin the quantum physicist some questions that have come to the forefront for me lately.

[Still, let me recommend to theists the epilogue to C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image, in which he talks about nature in a way that shows he had been talking with the physicists at Cambridge and Oxford about Copenhagen QM (quantum mechanics) and the way that many manifest processes in nature seem to depend on resources lying elsewhere. It is so strange to me that many scientists are very comfortable talking about all of this stuff — just as long as no one uses the words “God” or “spiritual,” because these words have very unwelcome connotations (and I’m not sure theists aren’t responsible for many of these bad connotations). Theists, be sure to look, too, at what Richard Dawkins, the bad man hisself, said in an interview discussed in my earlier post, “Bravo for 3 Quarks Daily…”]

In the meantime, let me ask Gavin and other physicists/cosmologists/molecular biologists and so forth, these questions that have finally crystalized for me, questions that may in the long run prove to be related to Maria’s thoughts.

Gavin,

1) My son took a GE course in astronomy/cosmology at Penn last spring and came home for the summer and repeated to me something I’ve heard before about quantum indeterminacy. I want to know if you agree. He said that if you throw a ball at a solid wall a billion billion times, one time it might not bounce back, but continue right on through the wall. I understand why this is said (I think) but it is up-to-date in your view?

2) Here’s another question, one that has been driving me crazy. If you shot a rifle that was not accurately lined up or had looseness in its design where it shouldn’t, isn’t it the case that you would end up with a haphazard spray of bullet holes around the center of the target, and they would be randomly distributed and you couldn’t say where each bullet would be except roughly within a certain tolerance?

Now why is it that the collapse of the wave function is so worrisome to theorists, given that the particles are bound to appear within the range of the wave function and you can even specify the probability of where any given particle might appear on the screen. Setting aside the wave/particle duality itself (if we can), why is it so problematic that we can’t say where each particle itself will land, in a strict deterministic fashion? Aren’t there many things in nature that operate this way? When water is splashing along in a stream, it doesn’t splash exactly the same way twice, but it is certainly determined within certain limits. (?)

In the humanities and social sciences, we talk about norms applying “with a certain degree of determinacy.” In other words, the manifestation is always within a certain range, but the degree to which the normative outcome applies may be very loose or somewhat loose or may apply with very little indeterminacy, but it does not have to strictly every time to be a true normative pattern. Does there really have to be a deterministic mechanism underlying everything in science? If so, what about the water splashing…. (Or Brownian motion? It is random, isn’t it? “Random” within a certain shaping description.)

3) Finally, I remember that you said that Roger Penrose was waaay off in suggesting that a new theory of quantum gravity may eventually provide an underlying mechanism for the wave/particle enigma. (And he connects this with the quantum nature of consciousness, too, which Maria has heard of and that it is in the collective psyche of our culture right now.)

So Gavin, can you clarify what is the exact nature of your disapproval of Penrose, here? Is it the gravity part of the theory that you object to, or is it the very idea that physics will discover an underlying mechanism that is currently unknown, for wave collapse? That you are convinced in sticking with the current maths like Copenhagen does and not looking for anything further?

It seems to me that the general course of scientific progress indicates that an anomaly like wave/particle collapse will eventually be resolved by a new and deeper underlying theory, as in the case of earlier anomalies like black body radiation and the Michelson-Morley experiments. Yet it seems that you like the current maths enough to invest in the “other” explanation: that the current anomaly is explained by the particle being in every possible location but in different universes. But doesn’t this interpretation mean that “we” are in all those different universes too, but each of “us” doesn’t know the others exist? That SOUNDS, at least, pretty far out. I don’t say this to provoke you, Gavin, because I understand how compelling the mathematics are said to be. But what of the “metaphysical” implications? Don’t those give you pause? And why are you so opposed to a more “traditional” way out: that a new theory will provide a new mechanism for a more deterministic explanation?

4) Oh, sorry, one more question. I’ve been reading a philosopher of science James Cushing who describes the de Broglie/Bohm theory of quantum collapse, which Bohm developed after the acceptance of the Copenhagen approach as the standard theory. Cushing says Bohm’s iis a deterministic theory, and that it explains the phenomenon as well as Copenhagen does, and he contends that it is merely historical contingency that the Copenhagen hit the scene first and became orthodoxy. Do you have any thoughts on this? I would expect that physicists would opt for a deterministic theory if it really held water for them, even if another theory got there first….?

Sorry to load all of this questions onto poor Gavin. Any other physicists or others out there who care to comment on any of these questions? Or innumerate humanists and/or theists?

Invitation: to discuss Shusaku Endo’s “Silence”

As the month of October is slipping by us, remember that you’re invited to read (or reread) the great novel Silence, written by one of Japan’s finest novelists, Shusaku Endo. In November, we’ll see if we can get some discussion of this novel going. The conversations we’ve had here about physics and poststructuralism have had the perverse effect of helping direct me more deeply into my off-line theoretical writing, so I have had less time for blogging. But I’d love to talk over this provocative novel that Hi brought up with the varied readers we have here. [For some thoughts on science and literature, wherein I end up comparing Endo and Einstein, see my comment here.]

Silence is a “spare and elegant” classic that is frequently taught in “international fiction” courses, which is how I happened to pick it up to read years ago, when a colleague was teaching it. In it, Endo shows us an historic clash of cultures by telling the story of a seventeenth-century European missionary to Japan and his flock of Japanese converts, as they seek to endure a fierce persecution.

Endo, who is Japanese, identified himself as a Christian. (And Hi has some very thoughtful remarks on this and on Christianity in Japan.) In any case, he certainly looks very deeply into the idea of Christian sacrifice and martyrdom in this novel — so deeply that it has aroused disquiet and even protest among Christians.

For myself as a Christian, I was deeply moved by reading this difficult and unforgettable book. It’s a beautiful piece of writing and I found it spiritually bracing and cleansing. It gets down to basics about what Christ’s death means for believers in a way nothing else I’ve ever read has done.

But it’s a very rich novel, with many faces, and if I am not mistaken, Hi introduced it in connection with the question of why anyone would (or should) embrace belief in the Christian God, or in any gods, when different cultures have such different religious traditions. (Science on the other hand has a certain universality that appeals across cultures. I believe that is part of this thought.) And Hi also mentions how hard-edged and aggressive all of the Western religions seem to be, from the Eastern perspective accustomed to Buddhism and Shintu. But he says this all, better than I am doing.

As Christians are heading toward the season of Advent, a season that calls them to “silence” and darkness, in which they await the coming of the Christ-child and ponder what this nativity means, it seems appropriate to read a novel called Silence, about a Christian who is forced to make a terrible choice in a time of great personal darkness — in a time of utter silence from God, which might remind us of Mother Theresa’s letters about her sense of “abandonment” by God. (We talked about this a little bit over at The Land of Unlikeness. But not in depth, and I still have many questions about them.)

Another connection with current issues, perhaps, is to be found in the way that Endo’s protagonist does not know for sure (how can he?) whether his God will see his decision as sinful and blasphemous, or as being perhaps in the deepest likeness to Christ’s divine love as manifested on the Cross. He is an extreme situation, in which none of us would wish to find ourselves, for which no conventional guidelines from the past seem to apply. Faith, though, always tests not us, but who we think God is, and what God is for us (this God who “is love”).

Right now, we Episcopalians find ourselves in a place where the same diametrically opposed interpretations of our actions are being offered us. How can we know for sure? We have to trust in the God we know. I have never thought that the real question is, does God exist? No, the real question is, who and what is God?

And the question, who is God, what is God, is also the question: what have I found in my journey that compells my allegiance and is worthy of my deepest devotion?

I’m pretty sure that we’ll be able to ponder this novel, and pursue whatever issues it raises for us, without being militant or disputatious. So, my very gentle readers (gentle most of the time anyway), I hope you’ll get your copies and start reading….

Here’s to November!