Advanced Thinking

16 April 2011


There are several themes that appear regularly throughout Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View (which I have referenced many times) such that the attentive viewer might produce a list of theses that are Clark’s point of departure. Since my admiration for this television series ought to be obvious for all the comments I have made about it, it should also be obvious that I find something of value in Clark’s theses. I do not completely agree with all of them, but I am probably at least sympathetic to most of them.

One of the theses that guides Clark is the idea that different human endeavors express the most advanced thinking in different eras of human history. He especially expresses this in relation to renaissance painting and baroque music.

Here are some quotes, both from the book and from the very similar (but not verbatim) spoken version of the television series:

“People sometimes wonder why the Renaissance Italians, with their intelligent curiosity, didn’t make more of a contribution to the history of thought. The reason is that the most profound thought of the time was not expressed in words, but in visual imagery. Two sublime examples of this truism were produced in the same building in Rome, not more than one hundred yards from each other, and during exactly the same years: Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and Raphael’s frescoes in the room known as the Stanza della Segnatura.” p. 126

This is the version in the book. The spoken version from the television series is slightly different:

“People sometimes wonder why the Italian Renaissance didn’t make more of a contribution to philosophy. The answer is that the most profound thought of the time wasn’t expressed in language, but in painting, just as in the early 18th century, it was expressed through music.”

Clark returns to this theme when he comes to the aforementioned 18th century music:

“In a period when poetry was almost dead, when the visual arts were little more than a shadow of what they had been, when the emotional life seemed almost to have dried up, music expressed the most serious thoughts and intuitions of the time, just as painting had done in the early sixteenth century.”

That’s the book version; here’s the slightly different version from the television series:

“The writing and painting of the 18th century make one think that the emotional life had somehow dried up. Well, of course, it hadn’t. It had been transferred to music. From Bach to Mozart, music expressed the deepest thoughts and feelings of the time, just as painting had done in the early 16th century.”

Clark’s thesis could be generalized not only to different times and places, but also to different civilizations. I have contended in several posts that distinct civilizations are based upon fundamentally distinct ideas of what a civilization is supposed to be (cf. The Incommensurability of Civilization). That is to say, I make the claim that the normative idea involved in civilization is different for different civilizations. If this is the case, it would not be surprising to find that these normative ideas are differently expressed by different civilizations. Some civilizations will likely produce great poets, while other civilizations will likely produce great engineers.

In several posts I have faulted contemporary industrialized civilization for failing to be a peer competitor to earlier iterations of Western civilization when it comes to the arts (I especially made this claim in The Very Idea of Higher Civilization), but as I write this I now see that I may have over-stated my case. One would do well to look at the accomplishments of each civilization (and each iteration of civilization, in so far as they can be distinguished) carefully in an attempt to discern in what field of endeavor a given people at a given place and time express their ambition for excellence and perfection.

Often the aspiration to technical perfection is paradoxically a consequence of limited technology that has the practical result of focusing intellectual energies in whatever field of endeavor is not compromised by a lack of technical resources. Thus the vocal polyphony of late medieval and early modern music represents a level of complexity and perfection that easily surpasses the baroque music that Clark values as a high point in the expression of Western aesthetics, but it is the limit of what can be done in music with the voice alone. Here all creativity is poured into a narrow receptacle, and gains in intensity due to that concentration.

Clark’s thesis discussed here suggests an obvious question: if the most profound and advanced thought of a civilization is expressed in different ways at different points in the history of that civilization, in what way does civilization today express its most profound and advanced thought?

In A Non-Constructive World I suggested that science has become bold and speculative even while philosophy has become timid and risk-averse. It may well be the case the scientific thought is the most advanced thinking of our time — though I would suggest it still has a way to go in its sophistication. Science still needs to transcend its origins (going back to Bacon and Galileo) in a rejection of the only systematic body of thought that preceded it: philosophy. So I will say for the time being that with the maturation of industrialized civilization science may yet become the most advanced thought of its time.

There yet remains another field of endeavor in which modern civilization has produced remarkable monuments and continues to break interesting ground, and this is in architecture and town planning. Urban planning, like science, may yet need to mature before it could be said to have attained true greatness on the level of ancient philosophy, renaissance painting, or baroque music, but modern architecture can plausibly claim to have attained this greatness.

Recently in a conversation a friend of mine was telling me about having a visceral reaction to modern art, and I think this is not at all unusual. Many works by the most famous modernists like Picasso and Francis Bacon (the Irish painter, not the English philosopher) are overtly disturbing, and probably intentionally so. Even though the visceral response to contemporary visual arts may be intended, it is often unwelcome; it is an authentic response, but not one that many will want to cultivate or to seek out.

At the same time that contemporary sculpture, painting, and music — the traditional triumvirate of “high culture” — is for many an unpleasant experience, architecture today is also often a visceral experience, but only rarely an unpleasant one. Some of the more astonishing creations of modern architecture — any of a number of Frank Gehry buildings, for example, or Catalan Modernisme — are quite likely to inspire awe and wonder. Much modern architecture is unimaginative, as no doubt much painting and music is essentially unimaginative, but at its best, contemporary architecture offers us a world that we live in, on, and around, and we respond to it as a part of our lives.

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