The world against me rages, its fury I disdain;
Though bitter war it wages, its work is all in vain.
My heart from care is free, no trouble troubles me.
Misfortune now is play, and night is bright as day.

--Awake, My Heart, with Gladness (Auf, Auf, Mein Herz, mit Freuden), Paul Gerhardt

Monday, April 21, 2014

Imagination, abstraction, and limits

Rod Dreher wants to talk about the trouble with nominalism.  That’s above my pay grade, I am afraid, even as I am thinking that I am going to eventually have to learn more about this area (from what I understand about it, it seems that a strict approach to nominalism is clearly fatally flawed, even as it surely provided some answers for other philosophical theories that did not seem able to account for the complexity found in the world). 

Will have to tackle that more later….  For now, let’s deal with modern ideas of what constitutes knowledge we can be pretty sure of and the proper use of such knowledge….

The ELCA Lutheran philosopher Tom Christenson is a smart guy:

The powers of human imagination are necessarily linked to the powers of abstraction.  An architect imagines a building as floor plan or section.  In order to do so she must abstract from many aspects of humanly experienced space.  A physicist imagines masses in gravitational fields.   In order to do so he must abstract from many aspects of the bodies considered.  These aspects are irrelevant to his study, though they may be very relevant to him in some other facet of his life.   This is not how he experiences the world, but it is how his science requires that it be seen.  An economist imagines the world as a network of realities measurable in monetary units.  This imagined world is an abstraction of certain features from among a continuum of features including ones the architect and the physicist (and the economist herself in a different context) find relevant.  Only certain measurable features of the world enter into an architect’s, a physicists’s, or an economist’s way of imagining.  The world thus imagined is simplified and clarified.  The relations between focal quantities are expressible in formulas.  The economist’s quantities do not fit as variables in the physicist’s formulas; the physicist’s do not fit the economist’s formulas eithers.  Different features of the same thing (e.g., of steel girders or the midday sun) may appear in the imaginatively clarified worlds of all three thinkers.  

Human imagination and focused attention allow us to perceive and interpret the world in many patterns.  The variation in those patterns of imagination/abstraction make possible such widely diverse things as space flight and short stories, computers and mythology, skyscrapers and pornography, relativity physics and the work of Shakespeare, chemistry and ethics.  Because each is an imaginative reconstruction of the world, it is an abstraction of the world.  Because each focuses something in, it also focuses something out.  Because each expresses a way things are, each also expresses a way things are not.  Each is able to tell a truth because each does not tell the truth. 

[Nathan’s note: yes, I too was wondering what pornography was doing in a list of otherwise undeniably good and useful things]

Herein lies one of the sources of our difficulty as humans.  We have been so highly and perhaps naturally impressed by what we have been able to see and understand from our imagined/abstracted points of view that we have become seduced into thinking that these abstractions are reality itself.  So we have created religions on the basis of our mythologies, and schools of thought on the basis of our disciplines.  We have declared alternative views heresies, reduced others’ ways of thinking to nonsense, and persecuted those who have not occupied our thought-world, calling them savages, uncivilized, and uneducated; calling those who did not know our stories and languages illiterate and barbarian.  We have turned these abstracted worlds into playing fields on which all must play in order that we can win and they will lose.  Their loss justifies their poverty and disenfranchisement.  They cannot complain.  They had their chance.  We have called it equality of opportunity. 

Thus our accomplishments in imagining and abstracting have often been accompanied by claims for the comprehensiveness, absoluteness, and exclusivity of the views based on them.  The appropriate response to this realization is not to abandon or accuse this human ability to imagine and abstract.  The proper response to learning that tools can be dangerous is not to stop using them.  The proper response is to be much more critical of our own claims to exclusivity and comprehensiveness.  We must realize that it does not follow from the fact that my view reveals a truth about the world that alternative views must be presumed false.  Monet painted many pictures of Rouen Cathedral.  Each of them does not refute the others.  He was not a failure for not being able to paint the picture.  Our failure lies not in imagining and abstracting, but in taking our imaginings and abstractions as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  It isn’t that we need to find a newer, truer view.  We need to find the power to criticize ourselves honestly and then go on to celebrate the variety of our own and other’s limited successes.  Let us be happy we have as many paintings of Rouen Cathedral as we have without lamenting the fact that we do not have the picture of Rouen Cathedral, whatever in the world that might be… (pp. 74-75)

I think that Christenson says some things that are helpful here and some that are not so helpful.  I will refrain from doing a detailed exegesis of what he is written here.  Suffice it to say that while he wants to just talk about painters, I would like to talk also about photographers as well – which can indeed sometimes provide a “newer, truer view” (contra 76 ; see 80)  

It seems to me that for Christenson, taking into consideration the subjective aspects of knowing (i.e. the fact that knowing is something done by individual persons of various backgrounds and views) must necessarily go hand in hand with a dismissal of rigorous attempts to “size up’ the cosmos that exist outside of us in a manner that has at least some concern for notions of objectivity (see p. 103 in particular) and the notion that some descriptions and viewpoints of this or that may be superior (“newer, truer view”) to others across a variety of cultural contexts (see p. 76, paragraph 1). 

In spite of his words on p. 106 that a key aspect of knowing is that it is “object-focused” (and it does not need to be prejudiced, unobservant or untrustworthy), I think that his view leaves him unable to defend himself versus the charge that his very own way of seeing things is nothing more than a way of advancing his own agenda (his own “transcendent, global claim[-making] power-defined epistemology” [p. 104] ; see his own remarks about being wary of this on page 126, paragraph three) at the expense of a rigorous concern for truth, including seeing things as they really are (which he also wants to do, shown, for example, in the John Updike quote he uses on page 122). 

In other words, for some Christians in particular, he can be dismissed as just another garden-variety ideologue (albeit a “soft power” one and not a “hard power” one) and indeed a sexual-libertine one at that! (not just because of his remarks on pornography – there are other reasons for thinking this might be the case).  Of course, saying this may not be fair to Christenson himself, but it seems to me that more robustness is actually needed in his systematic treatment of epistemology – one that is more explicitly self-aware vis a vis other viewpoints (I get the impression that he thinks that since he perceives that he does not hold to his own views “in a dogmatic way”, that he would never be capable of “beati[ing] someone over the head with [his] version of reality, truth, beauty, or goodness” [or worse!, p. 79], which is basically what I thought was happening to me throughout much of his book, since I disagreed with several of his views, descriptions, assertions, etc.). 

This reminds me of a book I recently read by the integrationist linguist Roy Harris (I appreciate integrationists and am somewhat attracted to their theories), called After Epistemology.  In it, he says that “Classical thinking, imposes an epistemological hierarchy, in which linguistic knowledge takes priority over non-linguistic knowledge” (AE, p. 78), but I submit that that this is a recurring human story.  It seems to me that human beings have a tendency to suppress any “non-linguistic knowledge” – or any kind of knowledge for that matter – which they find inconvenient, that “cramps their style”. “Inconvenient truths” and annoying contextual knowledge, sometimes seemingly trivial, sometimes more clearly of wide consequence, (this is not to insist that apart from our own or other’s lies, deceptions, and illusions that our senses and minds are perfectly reliable – i.e. that what is within us [our “personal equipment”] tracks in a perfectly “one-to-one” way with what is external to us – but that it is reliable enough for helping people do what they are meant to do) are to be mitigated – and it only makes sense that they would do this with our words – to create our own meaning.   

I agree with Harris that Classical thinking was unique in that it was “a bold attempt to move knowledge into the public domain” (AE, p. 79, emphasis Harris’), but I think that whatever the motives of those who did this, overall, it served to help fight against our tendency to suppress our knowledge of ourselves and the world.  Overall though – of course – suppression still reigned and reigns – and new kinds of knowledge suppression were undoubtedly introduced and made possible by this new “public language” as well.  A little stability, a little order, a little love, a little pleasure, perhaps a little justice (however conceived): what more could one ask from life?  “What is truth?” indeed.     

In any case, from this Christian’s perspective, Both Christenson’s and Harris’ ideas are certainly able to be easily molded towards the service of moral pursuits at odds with the Scriptures.  Any view of the world that assumes there always have been and always will be some stable categories – even if only during our time on earth! – must be suppressed, or at the very least, mitigated.

This goes along with the spirit of the age.  Hans Ulrich Bumbrecht, professor of Romance languages at Stanford University, from his 2004 book “Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey”:

What I want to say….is that there is probably no way to end the exclusive dominance of interpretation, to abandon hermeneutics… in the humanities without using concepts that potential intellectual opponents may polemically characterize as “substantialist,” that is concepts such as “substance” itself, “presence,” and perhaps even “reality” and “Being”.  To use such concepts, however, has long been a symptom of despicably bad intellectual taste in the humanities; indeed, to believe in the possibility of referring to the world other than by meaning has become anonymous with the utmost degree of philosophical naivete – and until recently, few humanists have been courageous enough to deliberately draw such potentially devastating and embarrassing criticism upon themselves.  We all know only too well that saying whatever it takes to confute the charge of being “substantialist” is the humanities on autopilot

(quoted in Armin Wenz, Biblical Hermeneutics in a Postmodern World: Sacramental Hermeneutics versus Spiritualistic Constructivism, LOGIA, 2013)

Now I would not say that we can never, a la Kant a la Plato, talk about “Instantiations (creating concrete representations of abstract things or ideas) of noumena (a “thing in itself”) for phenomena (a “thing as it appears to be”, i.e. through one’s sensory experience and construction by the mind)”, but this should be the exception, not the rule – especially in theology!  Aristotle, for all his imperfections, is more in line with biblical thinking here.

For more reflection on Christianity, epistemology and history, also see the series I did elsewhere on my other blog, What Athens needs from Jerusalem.

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