Jacob Bronowski and Radical Reflection

9 May 2011


Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man

As I have come to realize how much I enjoy documentaries of large scope, rather than waiting for them to fall me in a moment of serendipity, I now go looking for them. And so it is that I ordered Jacob Bronowski’s famous documentary, The Ascent of Man, from the library, and am now watching it.

The description of the series on the box, from Booklist, says that the series is, “an excellent resource for high-school and college students.” Well, it is much more than this. Like Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View, Ronald’s Eyre‘s The Long Search, and Gwynne Dyer’s War, this work by Bronowski is not merely educative, as the reference to high-school and college students seems to suggest, but it takes a definite point of view, a personal point of view. This stands in the best tradition of engaged scholarship and academic freedom.

I recently wrote of Clark’s Civilisation that he maintains a number of theses throughout his presentation, and the same is true of Bronowski. These documentaries are not merely showing us pretty pictures and telling us what once happened long ago, they are making arguments, and if you aren’t aware of that an argument is being made, and that others have argued to the contrary, you will miss a lot that is valuable in these presentations. It is only thoughtlessness — and thoughtlessness is the intellectual equivalent of carelessness — that would condescend to identify these arguments as mere “resource for high-school and college students.”

I am reminded, in this context, of Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. There are a few institutionalized philosophers who use this book as a classroom text. If you already know a good deal of philosophy, Russell’s survey is a very funny review, but if you do not know philosophy and attempt to learn it from Russell’s book, you will end up with some serious misapprehensions of the discipline. Russell’s history is a wonderful book, but is adopts a definite point of view, and as such sets its up in opposition to other points of view. Copleston’s history is much more detailed and closer to being objective, and Passmore’s history, though it only covers the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is better than either, though it too has a point of view.

Bertrand Russell A History of Western Philosophy

So it is with Bronowski on the history of science and Clark on the history of civilization: these are not “textbooks,” though there is much to be learned from them. With justification, both television series are subtitled, “A Personal View.” I find much of value in these personal views; that is in fact why I seek them out. It is interesting to know that Bronowski’s science series was conceived in conscious counterpoint to Clark’s series on civilization. In an interview with Sir David Attenborough that is included on the Civilisation DVD, the latter reveals how BBC 2 controller Aubrey Singer was castigated for putting the arts “first” in having Clark’s Civilisation as the first large, multi-part documentary on the network.

While Bronowski’s series was undertaken in conscious contradistinction to Clark’s Civilisation, as a science counterpoint to Clark’s arts perspective, there are in fact many similarities and continuities between the two, and both maintain similar theses, though Bronowski’s are formulated in a much longer time frame. I sharply disagree with many of Bronowski’s central theses, but I will leave any criticisms for another time. For the moment I would like to focus on what I find most valuable in Bronowski’s perspective.

Bronowski is very much a practitioner of the longue durée, though he is not an historian per se, and not a structuralist. But Bronowski’s long term perspective on time adds up to more than the sum of its extended parts. The absolute quantity of history taken in my Bronowski’s perspective ultimately has qualitative consequences for the conception of history given exposition by Bronowski. I enthusiastically approve of this, as this is exactly what I have been trying to get at in what I have come to call metaphysical history (and which I formerly called Integral History).

Comparing Bronowski and Clark on history, Bronowski’s reflections are the more radical. Let me try to explain what I mean by that, and it won’t be easy. We are so familiar with the political use of “radical” that we have lost the larger, more comprehensive meaning of the term. The sense of “radical” to which I am appealing has nothing to do with waving signs in the street or calling for the overthrow of government. “Radical” in a philosophical sense is something beyond the most intemperate demands of the political radical, and therefore in a sense even more radical.

To be radical is to go to the root. It is to get at the fons et origo of things. The political radical wants to get at the root of a political problem by eliminating an old and compromised society and effecting a root-and-branch reconstruction of society. Thus the political sense of being radical is a specialized sense of “radical.” A comprehensive conception of what it is to be radical, an extended sense of radical not restricted to any one concern or discipline, is ultimately metaphysical. To be metaphysically radical is to attempt to get at the root of the world.

Husserl Cartesian Meditations

Husserl throughout his works of phenomenology, emphasized the radical nature of phenomenological reflection. Husserl is trying to get at the root of things, and that is what makes his thought radical. Throughout his Cartesian Meditations, for example, he calls for philosophical radicalism. This is a consistent theme in Husserl, and here is a characteristic passage:

“In recent times the longing for a fully alive philosophy has led to many a renaissance. Must not the only fruitful renaissance be the one that reawakens the impulse of the Cartesian Meditations: not to adopt their content but, in not doing so, to renew with greater intensity the radicalness of their spirit, the radicalness of self-responsibility, to make that radicalness true for the first time by enhancing it to the last degree, to uncover thereby for the first time the genuine sense of the necessary regress to the ego, and consequently to overcome the hidden but already felt naïveté of earlier philosophizing?”

Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1960, Introduction, section 2, “The necessity of a radical new beginning of philosophy,” p. 6

I see Bronowski’s perspective as a scientific radicalism that is closely parallel to Husserl’s philosophical radicalism. Both forms of radicalism are metaphysical, and seek to get at the root of reality itself.

One practical example of this is that early in his television series (in the second episode, I think — I don’t yet know this as well as Clark’s Civilisation, which I nearly have memorized) Bronowski refers to “civilization as we know it” as being 12,000 years old, which means that he is identifying civilization with the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution and the emergence of settled life in villages and eventually cities. I have made this claim myself, in this forum, though it is not typical to date civilization in this way. Also early in the series Bronowski says, “nature, i.e., evolution.” This reminds me of the evolutionary bluntness of JFK in his “sea” speech, which I mentioned in my post Inaugural Special Edition.

The evolutionary honesty of Bronowski is presently under attack by anti-scientific crackpots from the right. But Bronowski is equally honest about human adaptive radiation, openly discussing the adaption of various ethnic groups (formerly called “races”) to the different environments into which they migrated, and this is a position that is presently under attack my anti-scientific crackpots on the left. It is, in part, this admirable indifference to political implications that makes Bronowski’s position radical in the best sense of the term.

New forms of dishonesty and humbug are always emerging from human history, as men twist and turn their minds in an anti-heroic effort not to see things as they are, and it often requires considerable effort — a radical effort like that of Husserl or Bronowski — to transcend these ingenious efforts at self-deception. Such an effort is difficult, but the reward is correspondingly great.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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