Saturday, July 26, 2008

Advice: Read Richard Tarnas (Pt. 1)

I'm reading a 2006 book by Richard Tarnas callled Psyche and Cosmos. I confess, he had me from his opening sentence: "Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, Santayana declared." For me, this one of those darts through the heart that stings a little because I recognized it as something I had been trying to say, without the same clarity.

Tarnas' first book was published in 1991, and was called The Passion of the Western Mind. I haven't read it, but it supposedly traced the whole history of Western thought from the presocratics through postmodernism. Quoting Santayana, and in the tradition of Carl Jung and Joseph Cambell, Tarnas finds himself within that immaculately ignored tradition of powerful thinking that resists and has been resisted by academia.

Think about that again for a moment: Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect. In Tarnas' opening chapters, he suggests that we are living in a kind of intellectual sea-change of the same magnitude as that represented by the Copernican revolution. He tells the story of those early astronomical reformers, and reminds us that Copernicus and his immediate followers were not hailed as the geniuses that history revealed them to be. Instead, they "wrote letters to each other across centuries," and they argued with the twin authorities of the church (which might be expected) and the general scientific community, who regarded a heliocentric theory as betraying the most fundamental of our sensory observations.

Tarnas challenges us to imagine the same kind of new thought emerging today. It would have to be described by politicians, by scientists, by academics, and by theologians -- by all of them, it would be dismissed as ridiculous. There would not be a vast and happy transformation over the course of 18 months; instead, this transformation might take centuries.

All of this makes me think about the prejudices of academics -- the ones that I have observed in others, of course (as I am blind to my own!). What things have academics not only disagreed with, but effectively refused to consider over the past decade? A tentative list:
  • The possibility that personal "identity" is illusory and unimportant
  • The ennobling potential of devout spirituality
  • The prospect of an eternal universe (i.e., no Big Bang)
  • Conservative economics
  • "Essences," Truth (sg.), and authoritarianism
  • That "Progress" is a myth (note: postmodern theorists love to claim that they believe progress is a myth, but I've seen almost none of them [in academia] behave accordingly -- that is, renounce the notions of better Justice and intellectual superiority that seem to come naturally with history -- that is, most graduate students think they are more knowing than Plato because they've read Derrida, who came "after" Plato in historical terms)
  • That astrology is the product of ancient wisdom rather than superstition
  • That the mind is not entirely physiological -- i.e., that Prozac is/has been a con
  • That sexuality is a not genetic matter
  • That man-made global warming is an overall positive

Of course, this is a list composed mostly of my own observations, and probably is the result of my own biases and prejudices. Feel free to call me out: what do I refuse to consider? What about you? Have you remained chaste so long that you've forgotten how to give yourself over, making chastity itself a hollow act of dead piety? Are the words of the prophets really written on the subway walls and tenement halls, and not in Philological Quarterly? Have you scoffed at our time's Copernicus?

For good measure, here's a YouTube video of Harvard Professor Richard Tarnas speaking as the keynote at a conference on astrology (yes, astrology, not astronomy):


Wishydig said...

I think the problem I have with your list is that I don't believe academics have refused to argue or believe several of them.

Eg -- I know of many mainstream academics who believe a devout spirituality is not only helpful but vital. These are not academics in small evangelistic schools. They're big ten and ivy league and research triangle academics in all fields.

And there's also a slight but important difference between refusals to consider something-
-because it seems so unlikely and is therefore not worth pursuing and
-because it's likely but dangerous to another cherished conclusion
-because it's not relevant no matter which way you believe.

That third one I think will excuse many of the academics that we come in contact with. Who in the humanities knows enough to have an opinion about the big bang or innate sexuality or global warming?

There are people working hard to figure out a way around the big bang. Not extremists -- but physicists who see a gap in the theory.

So A) academics are not all ignoring these questions B) those who do refuse to consider are not usually in a relevant field C) its not usually the conclusion that is rejected but the process.

But let me guess -- I'm speaking from a naive faith in the system. It's fooled me into trusting it right?

Casey said...

"Who in the humanities knows enough to have an opinion about the big bang or innate sexuality or global warming?"

I wish I could say, "Exactly!," in response to this question -- but it seems to me that if any group of people think they know about sexuality it's humanities professors.

And to suggest that we ought not bother with hard questions like the big bang because they're not relevant seems incorrect (but I wouldn't say "absurd") when considered in light of the cosmology-inspired changes in culture precipitated by 1) Copernicus-Newton (Renaissance) and 2) Einstein (Modernity).

I guess I just have a different perspective on a figure like Einstein than most: in my view, he comes smack in the middle of a movement toward that kind of thinking (in fact, he was a little late: in economics, subjective theory arrived in 1872, and in painting impressionism came onto the scene in about 1870).

So while most people think that science comes first, and that the arts and "soft sciences" follow, I tend to think almost the opposite. If we describe a new theoretical/philosphical way of encountering the world, I wouldn't be surprised to see a scientist detect some new data in his observations allowing him to completely revise or reverse our current understanding of cosmology.

You might like to read or read about Poe's essay Eureka, where he sketches a complete and "internally consistent" cosmology. I consider it to be at least as true as Stephen Hawking's latest cosmology.

--Anyway, if I'm right, thinking about these kinds of "ignored" topics is absolutely our right and responsibility. (Of course, I'm probably wrong)

As for the spirituality thing: I take your point. But still, it seems to me that in the liberal arts spirituality is usually put in quotes and understood in terms of psycho-social construction. I guess there are plenty of "objective" studies that show that prayer "works." And as I'm guessing you'd argue, that's about all academics can do before they start speculating... so, true enough.

Then again, why can't intellectual academics perform their studies in an environment where spirituality is not only observed, but also integrated? Newton wasn't alone in incorporating his theology into his science -- need the two be separate?

Anyway, good thoughts. You can have the last word here if you want -- I'm adrift.

Wishydig said...

Well of course humanities know about sexuality -- but I thought we were talking about the biological influences on sexuality. I should have said that humanities professors know very little about the human genome or neurology.

And the implications of the Big Bang are of course important to many philosophies outside physics. But how many non-physicists even know how to argue about the evidence for differing accounts of cosmological history. So theologians get in on the argument all the time. And their arguments are sometimes interesting on theological grounds. But a physicist would hear it the way I would hear an argument between you and brian about whether optimality theory is a better representation of phonological processes than the SPE/multi-tiered approach.

You might come up with a very nice argument that cosmic justice is possible with one approach and not the other. Maybe even an argument that I can't argue against. But that won't change my mind and it won't get published in any linguistic journal.

And that's your concern right? If so I can only say that you're arguing against compartmentalization and specialization in scholarship. And I rather appreciate that academia respects the right of one field to ignore many of the concerns of other fields. Otherwise we start getting into the current quagmire of New Historicism that just can't keep its clumsy paws off economic and political and psychological theory.

And that's when academics start adopting an agenda in which ignoring other fields or tangential possibilities isn't just a right (as it should be) it's a requirement.