Temporal Parochialism

5 October 2009

Monday


Pieter Bruegel the Elder's famous painting of Hunters in the Snow shows a people immersed in their landscape, organically a part of their climate and topography. The ordinary thought of such people would have been similarly immersed in this landscape, emerging from it naturally, not imposed from without or above.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder's famous painting of Hunters in the Snow shows a people immersed in their landscape, organically a part of their climate and topography. The ordinary thought of such people would have been similarly immersed in this landscape, emerging from it naturally, not imposed from without or above.

Ordinary human thought, which emerges naturally from ordinary experience and is expressed in ordinary language, constitutes an institution unto itself. In several posts such as Life and Landscape, Viking Civilization, and Art and Landscape, I have attempted to show how the ideas of a people naturally emerge from the life of a people, and the life of a people naturally emerges from the landscape and the way of life possible within a given landscape. The ideas native to a people are the subject matter of ordinary human thought.

Karl Popper held that ideas take on a life of their own, and he called this the world three (in contrast to world one of material objects and world two of psychic events). We have had the natural history of ideas upside down for most of civilization: they do not come down to us from above, but emerge from below and move up and out into the world.

Karl Popper held that ideas take on a life of their own, and he called this the world three (in contrast to world one of material objects and world two of psychic events). We have had the natural history of ideas upside down for most of civilization: they do not come down to us from above, but emerge from below and move up and out into the world.

Thought, once emergent, leads a life of its own, and develops according to the principles of thoughts and ideas; ideas, once conceived, however conceived, are no longer tied to their origins in the natural world. Thought, freed from its natural origins, experiences a dialectical development, being pulled between the opposite poles of extension and extrapolation on the one hand, while on the other hand limitation and discipline. We touched on this a couple of days ago in Sartre’s Atheism Once Again, in which we characterized the constructive thought typical of the skeptic as demanding that thought be brought back to its origins and rigorously disciplined so that it doesn’t get out of hand. This is also, as we noted there, a Kantian motif.

Was Sartre a closet Kantian? Was Sartre a constructivist?

Was Sartre a closet Kantian? Was Sartre a constructivist?

Kant was a great skeptic — in his day he was seen as a great destroyer of traditional metaphysics after the fashion of Leibniz and Wolff — and consequently a great constructivist, or, rather, a proto-constructivist, since in his time constructivism in its contemporary signification had not yet been formulated. As a constructivist before constructivism was cool, Kant’s constructivism is a rather limited affair. Later species of constructivism are more sophisticated and considerably more detailed. but no thinker of the first rank (of which Kant was certainly one such) can be satisfied with producing a merely negative and restrictive doctrine. Kant was no exception. His philosophical program was bold and, at points, revolutionary. In other words, Kant’s philosophical innovations pushed our thought in new directions, and new philosophical traditions grew out of Kant’s work. Thus Kant too, hard-headed skeptic though he was, participated in the above-mentioned dialectical development of extrapolation and limitation, precocious if not promiscuous extension and stern if not ascetic discipline.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: rationalist philosopher, big hair aficionado, and target of Kantian skepticism.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: rationalist philosopher, big hair aficionado, and target of Kantian skepticism.

This dialectic not only describes our conceptual development, but we could even say that it is necessary to our conceptual development. We need both conceptual risk-takers and conceptual disciplinarians in order to limn the farther reaches of the mind, to show us on the one hand what is possible, and on the other what is necessary. We live the life of the mind between the possible and the necessary. But this isn’t what I primarily wanted to write about today, however interesting.

To bring things back to the institutions that emerge from ordinary thought, the ideas that constitute ordinary thinking are also bounded by possibility and necessity, but we don’t always know which is which. Ordinary thinking is often deeply confused, and that is why in specialized contexts we don’t rely on ordinary language but use specialized formal languages that allow us to express our thoughts with a preternatural precision of which ordinary language is not capable.

Sometimes our ordinary ideas are not only wrong or misleading, but they constitute an obstacle that later thought (usually formal thought) must overcome if it is to continue its development. There is a long history of parochial human thought that arrogates to itself an undeserved universality, and which usually only gives up the ghost when it is so thoroughly defeated that it becomes laughable. It is often unfortunate that our intellectual development must often take this extreme course, but we should understand it for what it is, and know that this is the source of so much iconoclasm on the part of the progressively minded. The rude and at times mocking rejection of tradition is a consequence of tradition becoming identified with ideas that must be transcended for human thought to continue its free development.

While there are many forms of parochialism that we might wish to explode, I think that there is an insufficient appreciation of the role that temporal parochialism has played in hindering the development of scientific and philosophical thought. Our ideas of time are primarily derived from our human, all-too-human experience, and the human experience of time is limited in the extreme. To suppose that the world entire can be adequately interpreted according to the time experienced by a single organism bound to circadian rhythms and annual cycles, and which after fifteen or so annual cycles can reproduce itself and therefore render itself redundant, is foolish, if not laughable.

Louis Althusser made explicit the implicit structuralism in Marx, further alienating the individual from his personal agency.

Louis Althusser made explicit the implicit structuralism in Marx, further alienating the individual from his personal agency.

It is not enough merely to be aware of our anthropocentric conception of time, we must actively fight against our temporal parochialism; we must continually push ourselves to attain new intuitions of time that are appropriate to the scientific conceptions we have been forced to formulate in order to understand the world on the world’s terms, and not on our own terms. Philosophy and science since the nineteenth century have been doing this, but for a large section of the human population, and especially since the nineteenth century, philosophy and science have become continually less relevant to daily life precisely because they are becoming so specialized that an effort is required to assume the scientific standpoint or the philosophical standpoint. The ordinary man that does not spend his time grappling with philosophical and scientific problems usually has neither the time nor the inclination to force his mind to understand measures of time beyond those easily perceived or conceived.

Claude Lévi-Strauss was perhaps the most famous of the French structuralists, using structuralism in studies of anthropology, mythology, and sociology.

Claude Lévi-Strauss was perhaps the most famous of the French structuralists, using structuralism in studies of anthropology, mythology, and sociology.

Training the mind to think in terms of non-anthropocentric measures of time has taken two different forms which reflect the temperamental concerns of continental European social sciences on the one hand, and on the other hand Anglo-American natural science. This division is in no sense absolute, and is even to a certain extent impressionistic, but it can be useful for understanding some intellectual trends. There are many natural scientists of the first rank from Europe, and many innovators in the social sciences from the Anglo-American intellectual milieu, but there are intellectual movements that roughly and in the main observe geographical boundaries.

James Hutton was among the founders of scientific geology and among the first to conceive of time on a geological scale.

James Hutton was among the founders of scientific geology and among the first to conceive of time on a geological scale.

Continental European social sciences were deeply philosophical in character and were in large part derived from philosophical traditions. Structuralism began as a philosophical school, but it was deeply indebted to Marx and Freud, who were not precisely philosophers but who exercised a disproportionate influence over continental philosophy. Structuralism turned attention away from the individual and toward those structural forces in society to which the individual is subject. In its extreme forms it could be taken to deny individual agency altogether, but in its familiar form it was a needed corrective to anthropocentric conceptions of time and focusing on measures of time appropriate not to the individual consciousness but to the institutions to which individuals are usually subject.

William Smith came from a practical background in the coal industry and pioneered the method of dating geological strata by means of the fossils preserved in them.

William Smith came from a practical background in the coal industry and pioneered the method of dating geological strata by means of the fossils preserved in them.

Anglo-American natural science was also philosophical, but it primarily owed its philosophical debts to the English empiricist philosophers like Locke and Hume, who are frequently seen not only as philosophers but also as proto-psychologists. A series of innovative natural scientists — and, in many cases, simply engineers and technicians who found themselves obligated by the advances in their subject matter to attempt to seek and to clarify the foundations of their disicipline — greatly extended the conception of time. I am thinking of Englishmen like James Hutton, William Smith, Charles Lyell, and Charles Darwin. That this movement should originate in English is no mystery. The industrial revolution began in England, and it was fueled by coal. The coal industry in turn had to teach itself geology, and geology led to the natural history that shaped geographical features, which led in turn to the natural history that shaped the ancient forests and extinct creatures preserved in the coal seams.

Sir Charles Lyell was knighted and buried in Westminster Abbey in recognition of his contributions to geology, which was apparently rather less controversial than applying the same ideas to biology and anthropology.

Sir Charles Lyell was knighted and buried in Westminster Abbey in recognition of his contributions to geology, which was apparently rather less controversial than applying the same ideas to biology and anthropology.

Our thinking is still bedeviled by anthropocentric conceptions of time, and we need to fight against these anthropocentric illusions if we are to free ourselves from inherited errors. I find this especially in economics. Recently when I was writing about China in this forum I mentioned that the reason people resist connecting economic development with democratization was the limited temporal horizon they assume. The social change driven by industrialization will eventually issue in some form of popular sovereignty, but it will take time — maybe a hundred years or more. Because the commentariat cannot think in terms of political developments of a hundred years, they simply deny it.

Lyell's Elements of Geography embodied uniformitarianism and the geological conception of time; both were central to Darwin's intellectual development.

Lyell's Elements of Geography embodied uniformitarianism and the geological conception of time; both were central to Darwin's intellectual development.

Temporal parochialism, however, is most shockingly present in the open and explicit rejection of natural sciences by large sections of the population. Part of this, as I have pointed out above, is the growing disconnect between specialized scientific knowledge and ordinary life. But I have also pointed out in this forum (in Population Maps) the phenomenon that everyone has noticed, namely, that young people are more adept with high technology than their elders, and moreover that it needs to be this way if the quantifiable progress of civilization is to continue. Today, science and technology are more closely related than ever before. Rigorous science is necessary to technological innovation, and technological innovation is necessary to the continuing extension of scientific knowledge.

Darwin was a diligent student of Lyell, took a copy of The Elements of Geology with during his voyage on the Beagle, and applied Lyell's uniformitarianism to biology.

Darwin was a diligent student of Lyell, took a copy of The Elements of Geology with during his voyage on the Beagle, and applied Lyell's uniformitarianism to biology.

Children cannot — must not — learn the errors of their parents first, only in order to unlearn them later. They have to jump in with the newest and most recent state of the art of knowledge, and begin to revise and to contribute to that knowledge from that point forward. If the depressing statistics are true about skepticism toward geology, paleontology, anthropology and archaeology, then our quantifiable progress will come to a rude halt in the near future. But if this sort of obscurantism turns out to be a mere pose, and no one really believes it, and no one really expects their children to believe that the earth was created in 4004 BC, then science continues to have a bright future. Perhaps we will only know how much necessary hypocrisy is incorporated into our institutions when the future arrives and we find ourselves either intellectually impoverished or intellectually advanced beyond our expectations.

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William Smith's geological map of England that, according to Simon Winchester, changed the world. Winchester's book on William Smith is well worth reading.

William Smith's geological map of England that, according to Simon Winchester, changed the world. Winchester's book on William Smith is well worth reading.

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