Friday, April 27, 2007

The End of Reason

Mysticism is the only source of virtue for humanity. --Simone Weil

In certain conversations, I have been too-hastily labeled (and dismissed!) as a Platonic idealist. This isn't to say I entirely refuse the title, but I am suggesting that many of my academic collegues who have never even finished The Republic seem too comfortable assuming that "we" are somehow "past that." C.S. Lewis once described this kind of shallow understanding of intellectual progress as "chronological snobbery":
Barfield never made me an Anthroposophist, but his counterattacks destroyed forever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my "chronological snobbery," the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find out why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also "a period," and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack of feels it necessary to defend them.
Needless to say, the academy has always been susceptible to this kind of bandwagoning--consult your local expert in postmodernism, and object to his sloppy metaphysics: then you will see his eyes roll. If you can keep his attention through that first moment, and clearly articulate your own metaphysical foundations, he will almost certainly wave his hand and dismiss you as "a Platonist," whether or not you are familiar with Plato (indeed, he's gambling that you are not). Further, should you try to dismiss him in reflective terms, by labeling him a Neo-Sophist, he will hurriedly assure you that his position is much more complicated than the Sophists'. A nation full of first-year Ph.D. students confident that they are "past" Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Gorgias, etc.--Let Alexander Pope's admonishment stand: What the weak head with strongest bias rules, is pride, the never-failing vice of fools. (Source: Google search: "Pride Quotes")

Anyway, I'm trying to defend my claim that the dismissal of Platonism is almost universally "too-hasty." For Socrates, the great path is the dialectical method, in which a person is encouraged to make their claims publically, and to defend them in the face of lengthy and complicated questioning. In the process, newcomers are typically refuted without much problem, and sent back into the world to learn more about their subject matter. Further, because every subject seems to bleed into other fields, the student is encouraged to study widely, to learn about mathematics, and science, and literature, and mechanics. With this background in mind, consider the following pair of excerpts from The Republic, Bk. VII:
[Socrates to Glaucon] Now, when all these studies reach the point of intercommunion and connection with one another, and come to be considered in their natural affinities, then, I think, but not till then, will the pursuit of them have a value for our objects; otherwise their is no profit in them.

And so, Glaucon, we have at last arrived at the hymn of dialectic. This is that strain which is of the intellect only, but which the faculty of sight will nevertheless be found to imitate; for sight, as you may remember, was imagined by us after a while to behold the real animals and stars, and last of all the sun himself. And so with dialectic; when a person starts on the discovery of the absolute by the light of reason only, and without any assistance of sense, and perseveres until by pure intelligence he arrives at the perception of the absolute good, he at last finds himself at the end of the intellectual world, as in the case of sight at the end of the visible.

Have all your studies reached a point of intercommunion and interconnection? Just asking. In this dialogue, Socrates tries to help Glaucon understand that the dialectic is not something that can be short-cut, and that it is a process that comes to an end. This "hymn of dialectic" is not something that can be readily described to one who has not attained the end for himself. In brief, it is wisdom. We are specialized in this era, and the person who knows her field deeply is hardly exceptional--but she who could begin to claim the title polymath, she is on the trail with us...

Recommended Reading: Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid: A metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll, by Douglas Hofstadter, 1979.

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