Home      About Dan      News      Books      Forum      Art      Writing Well

<back to index | previous letter | next letter
September 2005 Message from Dan

Greetings Readers, Friends, and Other Visitors:

You’re reading this open letter on a writer’s web site, so I’m going to assume that you are, as I am, an inveterate reader – an addicted reader – a person who, if forced to choose between reading and eating, will be losing weight quickly in the near future.

With that assumption in mind, I’m going to regale you this month with my tale of The Perfect Epistemelogical Storm – i.e. one of those rare and serendipitous conjunctions of books randomly read resulting in a quantum leap in conceptual understanding on an important issue or opaque era or human dilemma or complex idea or all four of these categories and more. If you’re a real reader, you’ll know what I mean.

And for this message, I will warn you – as Thomas Jefferson purportedly wrote to an epistolary interlocutor – “I apologize for the great length of this letter. I did not have time to write a short one.”

My own most recent Epistemelogical Perfect Storm answered questions I’d generated in a paradoxical goal I’ve set for myself in recent years – “How can I think and write with greater clarity while simultaneously discovering and creating more ambiguity?”

Not interested in generating paradoxes for paradox-sake, I was serious about this goal. I knew it would be the center of both my thinking and creative life. The Epistemelogical Perfect Storm itself began in July of this summer, while on book tour, after an evening dinner in New York City with several editors and acquaintances from my publishing house. The dinner was also attended by my agent and friend, Richard Curtis, and late that evening, after dinner, Richard and I walked back to my hotel – talking all the way – and continued the discussion for another hour or so at the hotel bar.

Something in the discussion caused me to purchase William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience at the Newark Airport bookstore early the next morning before flying off to Phoenix for another stop on my book tour. I managed to forget the book at the Newark Airport, but a few days later I bought a second copy and continued reading it after the tour was finished. I’d previously read excerpts from James’s famous book, of course, usually embedded in someone else’s quotations, but this was the first time I’d read the thing from front to back.

Later this same July, I was preparing to fly off to my favorite Pacific island for some uninterrupted work on my new novel – (this book, THE TERROR, is about survival and death and darkness around ships frozen into pack ice in the arctic, so what better place to write it than under a coconut palm while sipping a mai-tai?) – and the only book-for-reading-pleasure I planned to take along was William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience.

And then my daughter Jane, who was working part-time in a Borders bookstore while also working with a documentary film company, gave me as a present – and out of the blue – a paperback copy of Louis Menand’s 2001 bestseller THE METAPHYSICAL CLUB: A Story of Ideas in America. I’d heard about Menand’s book and read a review in Publisher’s Weekly, but I hadn’t thought about buying it or checking it out of the library. I tossed it into my already crowded briefcase bag next to William James and flew off to a remote corner of my remote island.

And thus the first two elements of the Perfect Epistemelogical Storm have moved into place.

The Storm created by the collision of these two books is not over as I write this at the beginning of September, 2005, but it has already blown me to and through such other books as THE ESSENTIAL HOLMES: Selections from the Letters, Speeches, Judicial Opinions, and Other Writings of OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES, JR. edited and with an introduction by Richard A. Posner and THE TRIAL OF CURIOSITY: Henry James, William James, and the Challenge of Modernity by Ross Posnock.

On the stormy horizon – a new and necessary horizon created by the synergy of these previous books – awaits the reading (or completion of reading) of such books as Theodor W. Adorno’s Negative Dialectics and The Jargon of Authenticity and (with Max Horkheimer) Dialectic of Enlightenment. Also Leo Bersani’s The Culture of Redemption and A Future For Astyanax as well as William Connolly’s Politics and Ambiguity (and his article in Political Theory, “Taylor, Foucault, and Otherness” as well as pieces by R.P. Blackmur (one of my favorite writers of literary criticism), David Harlan’s “Intellectual History and the Return of Literature” in American Historical Review, work by Harold Laski, my old educational literary acquaintance John Dewey, old friend Santayana, and others.

Are you still with me? Nothing’s as boring as someone else’s reading list.

But the effect of these particular tomes was far from boring. Trust me. And all this has gone far, and is going even further, toward answering my seemingly paradoxical question -- How can I think and write with greater clarity while simultaneously discovering and creating more ambiguity?

So, to reprise -- the first two storm cells to collide in what would become the intellectual hurricane (by my temperate reckoning) of the Perfect Epistemological Storm were James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience and Menand’s The Metaphysical Club. All this, you might remember, while sitting under a coconut palm and working hard on THE TERROR.

William James’s complete volume struck me much as the fragments of it had in years past – naïve, a product of 19th Century psychology (the book is a set of lectures he gave in Edinburgh in 1901 and 1902), and far too centered in mainstream American Protestantism of the time (with tinges of his father’s obsessive Swedenborgianism). To tell the truth, I’ve always been wary of the James Brothers – William, the psychologist and philosopher who wrote like a novelist, and effete Henry, the novelist who wrote like a psychologist and philosopher. Part of my aversion may come from the fact that I write genre fiction – and Henry James is the avatar and grandfather of all “serious writers” who wouldn’t touch genre with a ten-foot pole (please see an essay I wrote some years ago exploring the odd friendship between Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson for a further exploration of the strange parting of “serious” and “imaginative” fiction since the days of their mutual admiration.)

Part of my instinctive aversion to some of William James’s thoughts on religion – especially the mystical aspects of it – may come from the same reason that Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of W.J.’s oldest friends, finally ended his relationship with him. Holmes – a consummate rationalist and much more the pragmatist than James (who began the philosophy of pragmatism) – felt that William James had used the limits of reason and science as an excuse to embrace the metaphysical, the irrational, or what Holmes called “the unseen world.” Amen to that, I thought.

But in The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand goes deep into the thought processes not only of William James and Oliver Wendell Holmes, but also of Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey – and through association – scores more of the intellectuals forming the future of American thought at the end of the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th Century.

These men were, quite literally, the intellectual creators (as Henry James was one of the artistic creators) of the way of thinking that would dominate the 20th Century -- Modernism.

Forged in or deeply affected by carnage and social upheaval of the Civil War, William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey and the others abandoned and helped derail a mode of thought that had been prevalent in Europe for countless centuries – perhaps for the entire previous history of civilization. One could call that deeply entrenched way of thinking -- Premodern Thought.

In one passage near the end of The Metaphysical Club, Menand neatly sums up the profound difference between Premodern and Modernist thinking –

“ . . . But in societies bent on transforming the past,
and on treating nature itself as a process of ceaseless transformation, how do we trust the claim that a particular state of affairs is legitimate?
The solution has been to shift the totem of legitimacy from premises to procedures. We know an outcome is right not because it was derived from immutable principles, but because it was reached by following the correct procedures. Science became modern when it was conceived not as an empirical confirmation of truths derived from an independent source, divine revelation, but as simply whatever followed from the pursuit of scientific methods of inquiry. If those methods were scientific, the result must be science. The modern conception of law is similar: if the legal process was adhered to, the outcome is just. Justice does not preexist the case at hand; justice is whatever result just procedures have led to. Even art adopted the same standards in the modern period: it became defined as the realization of the aesthetic potential of the artistic medium. Poetry was talked about as an exploration of the resources of language, painting as a manipulation of canvas and paint . . . . democracy had the same logic. It is that a decision can be called democratic only if everyone has been permitted to participate in reaching it."

Obvious, isn’t it? We all know this about our age, especially now that we’ve moved on to the Postmodernist World. (We’ll save postmodern thought – especially literary and cultural aspects of it – for another rant.) But the truly essential difference between modernist thinking and premodern thinking had never struck me with the force it did upon reading this.

It was as if a coconut had fallen out of the palm tree and conked me on the noggin, awakening me from my dogmatic slumber. It was the first blast from the Perfect Storm to come.

Those of you reading this who enjoy reading science fiction know that one of the oldest cliches in the genre (and now thoroughly idiotized by TV and movies) is the concept of THERE ARE ALIENS LIVING AMONGST US. They look like us, they talk like us, they may even smell like us, but they ain’t us. They’re aliens, man, and their entire set of goals and thought processes and chemistry is different.

This is the truth of our culture and wider world today. We may look roughly alike – featherless bipeds all (and I’m sure you remember that when Aristotle defined “Man” as “a featherless biped,” students at Plato’s competing Academy plucked a chicken, threw it over the Lyceum’s wall, and hung a sign around its neck that said, in Greek of course, “Aristotle, here is your MAN”) – but we’re actually different species. At least in terms of our intellectual view of the world and universe.

Imagine then, our world with three quite different species in it – all quite alien to one another, none understanding the basic a priori preconceptions which rule the others’ lives: Premodernist, Modernist, and Postmodernist. My guess is that – although we live in a cultural world literally created by Modernist thought and technology – 95% of Americans we know are Premodernist, perhaps 4.5% are Modernist, and 0.5% are Postmodernist. Since the last group has mostly been corralled and exiled to reservations which we call “campuses” (although some have escaped to the arts and architecture), we will discount them for the purposes of the current discussion.

When William James was a young medical student (he had just quit the Scientific School – one of his charms was that he could never decide what he wanted to “be”), he accompanied the preeminent scientist Louis Agassiz (Harvard University had created the Lawrence Scientific School that young James had just dropped out of in order to lure Agassiz to America and Harvard as its Director) on an 1864 expedition to Brazil.

Agassiz’s Brazilian Expedition was set up primarily to prove that South America had been as glaciated as North America and Europe. (It hadn’t. No glaciers or signs of glaciers there. Sorry, Louis.) Agassiz had to find signs of glaciers because his Creationist “theory” was based on the premise that God periodically wiped out all life forms on Earth – using glaciers, naturally, scouring all biology from the surface of the planet like a Brillo pad aggressively applied to a dirty frying pan – so that He could create new species.

Also, as a vocal advocate of the theory of polygenism – i.e. that God created all species (and races of humankind) separately, some inferior, some (such as white Anglo-Saxons) quite superior – Agassiz had to gather thousands of specimens to “prove” that species of birds were isolated and did not move to different areas and change over time, that species of fish did not migrate upstream and evolve into different species, and so forth. For the period of time William James worked for Agassiz on this Brazilian expedition until he got sick and went home – (the young genius spent most of the time in the jungle building barrels and crates for Agassiz in which to ship specimens home, but he also spent a lot of energy trying to catch birds and fish) – James’s opinion of Louis Agassiz, once approaching something like religious awe, plummeted.

The reason is simple: Agassiz, scientist though he believed he was, thought exclusively in Premodernist terms. That is, he collected empirical evidence to shore up and confirm “truths derived from an independent source, divine revelation,” and no other facts need apply. The fact that fishes and birds did move from one area to another and eventually evolved into different species – just like the fact that there were no real signs of ancient glaciers anywhere in South America – did not deter him from his “scientific beliefs.”

The emphasis in that last sentence should be on the word “beliefs.” All Premodern Thinking, going back to a time long before the Greeks, eventually resorts to some sort of metaphysics, usually in the form of mystical and spiritual revelation.

As my sociologist and philosopher friend Dan Peterson likes to say after a few beers, “Sorry, kid, it’s turtles all the way down.” But in Premodern Thinking, the turtles are metaphysical.

William James, on the other hand, was already moving toward Modernist thought. Darwin’s On The Origin of Species had been published on November 24, 1859, and Agassiz’s doomed (at least in intellectual, empirical, and scientific terms) Brazil expedition was largely an effort to refute every element of Darwin’s book. Young William James embraced Darwin – as did all real scientists and most serious intellectuals who would shape thought for the next seventy years or so – including (and especially) Darwin’s revolutionary insistence that it is mere chance, never design, that shapes the slow evolution of life forms into new and disparate species.

Recently I heard the President of the United States say that “Intelligent Design” – that cynical repackaging of old-fashioned evangelical Creationism – should be taught alongside the theory of evolution in science classrooms in America. “Let the students hear both sides,” was the president’s fairminded opinion.

Both sides? Once, when I was still teaching in the public school systems and Creationists were beating down the doors and crawling through the windows to insert their non-scientific curricula and beliefs into our science classes, I did an actual assessment of the number of religious and cultural creation myths that would need to be taught if we were to be fair and to “let the students hear both sides.” I estimated that there were more than 35,000 “alternative theories” of creation. (Don’t forget, just because a society has gone belly up – say the ancient Sumerians or Aztecs – it doesn’t mean that we should slight their god-given theories about Creation.)

Given an American school year of about 182 days, that came out to about 192 years of instruction for the kids, if we teach only one “Creation Theory” per day. Of course, there would be no time to teach anything else, but that’s what we sacrifice for balance and fairness.

More to the point of Premodern and Modernist aliens amongst us, neither side – locked into a holistic way of thinking – can understand what the hell the other is talking about. (A few cynics among the Creationists can – they know what real science is and how it works – but it means nothing to them in their zealotry to turn all schools into Christianized maddrasses.)

I’ve heard more than one Creationist say “Evolution is only a theory.” The emphasis here, of course, is on “only.” The variation on that is “Evolution is just a theory, not a fact.”

That’s intended to be a Q.E.D. argument stopper.

Anyone schooled properly since 1860 might just stop and stare at such a statement. The only proper reply would be – “Do you think that theories grow up to be facts?”

Just the opposite is true. There are billions of “facts.” Facts are random data. This morning’s temperature at six a.m. and the realization that Uncle Charlie is a drunkard are “facts.” On any ascending ladder of applied understanding, theories are much higher than facts. Theories explain facts.

Premodernist thinking cannot understand this. Premodernist thinking demands and requires revelation – it doesn’t matter so much where it’s from. Harmonic convergence, crystal power, good and bad karma, and feng shui will suffice as well as Holy Scripture, be it Vedic Scripture, Koran, the Book of Mormon, or otherwise. The important thing is – in one of the ugliest phrases our current ugly age has given us – to find closure.

Thus the philosophers on the Kansas School Board play their trump card. “The theory of evolution is not proven!”

Those who’ve made the transition to Modernist thinking – i.e. every human being on the planet who understands science – can only stare in embarrassment here as if the speaker has just stripped naked and started hopping on one leg and begun clucking like a chicken. A theory . . . proven? Don’t they understand that no scientific theory can ever be proven? This goes against the essence of science. You can’t PROVE a theory! You can only disprove theories.

It’s like Zeno’s Paradox where you can never catch the tortoise by covering half the distance to its butt with each step you take. There’s always half the distance left, no matter how infinitesimal. You can’t get there from here. Of course, a theory like Darwinian evolution has survived literally millions of challenges and its theoretical components have seen literally millions of confirmations under every sort of test and cross-test imaginable, but it will never be proven. It’s always open to revision and it’s always being revised as new data come in – punctuated equilibrium was a fun ride – but the “fact” of evolution as a real and ongoing process in nature is about as debatable as the existence of gravity.

The Premodernists on the Kansas School Board and elsewhere in the country understand that much. This is why they’ve been trying to change the wording for the entire definition of science in their state from “a system of understanding the world by working from empirical evidence to create theories” to “any internally logical system of rigorous thought.” The latter definition, of course, would make Sufi-ism, National Socialism, Aboriginal Dream Lines, belief in the Greek gods, Tarot card reading, Velekovsky-ism and UFOlogy as much “science” and as deserving to be taught in science classes in Kansas as “Intelligent Design.”

But do you want in on a secret?

The neo-Creationists in Kansas and elsewhere are correct in considering Charles Darwin and the scientific theory of evolution as their mortal enemies.

Charles Darwin had an agenda. It was not atheism, per se, but rather a deliberate attempt to move human thinking beyond the Premodernist revelationist, it-was-all-meant-to-be, There Is a Plan stage of thinking. As Menand writes in The Metaphysical Club

“The purpose of On the Origin of Species was not to introduce the concept of evolution; it was to debunk the concept of supernatural intelligence – the idea that the universe is the result of an idea . . . .
“For a belief that species evolve is not incompatible with a belief in divine creation, or with a belief in intelligent design. Progressive adaptation might simply be the mechanism God has selected to realize his intentions. What was radical about
On the Origins of Species was not its evolutionism, but its materialism. Darwin wanted to establish something even his most loyal disciples were reluctant to admit, which is that the species – including human beings – were created by, and evolve according to, processes that are entirely natural, chance-generated, and blind. In order to do this, he had to do more than come up with a new set of scientific arguments. He had to develop what amounted to a new way of thinking.” (Menand, 121)

In other words – be afraid, Kansas School Board. Be very afraid. You have a right to be.

This blend of Modernist objectivism, cool-eyed materialism, and abandonment of the dominance of metaphysical revelation in human affairs spread quickly. “Human Reason” was often cited in its defense and to explain its growth, but it was not Modernity’s prime mover.

In reading the letters, opinions, speeches, and public writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., one finds that Holmes did not believe that judges – even those on the Supreme Court – listened to the arguments in a trial, weighed the evidence carefully, and then used reason to come to a judgment – preferably a judgment that comes closest to True Justice. Holmes – shockingly – said flatly that a judge makes up his mind on a legal matter and only then brings logic and reason to bear to support the decision already arrived at.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a hero of the Civil War – seriously wounded three times -- knew that there is no Justice with a capital “J.” Justice is not something woven into the fabric of the universe any more than there is a Plan or Direction woven into the fabric of evolution. Justice, in a Modernist legal sense, is simply whatever the outcome is if the proper legal procedures were followed – even if it means the rapist-murderer is set free because some dumb cop forgot to read the lowlife scumbag his Miranda rights.

Please note here that Holmes was not saying (or recommending) that jurists should emulate non-scientists such as Agassiz – i.e. make up your mind first via some metaphysical revelation and then search for corroborating evidence. Rather, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was pointing out the essential difference between modern science and jurisprudence. The former works from great masses of empirical data toward testable theory, relying upon the procedures of science to weed out error; judges’ primary role, Holmes was saying, is to preside over adversarial procedure in the courts, making sure the legal procedure is followed properly – as surely as the Scientific Method and peer review are obeyed in doing real science –and then arrive at their decisions via a holistic process – a sort of intuitive gestalt involving their entire knowledge of law, precedent, and human behavior – only then using logic to support and explain the decision thus arrived at. It is a modern society’s rule of law versus a theocracy’s ideal of law as a servant to some form of Holy Writ.

Holmes became a Modernist – started down the road to Modernism – while being a participant in a war that was so terrible that he considered it a complete failure of civilization and of the American Experiment. A zealous abolitionist before the War, Holmes came to see that no belief – however worthy in the abstract (especially if it’s worthy in the abstract) – could justify such carnage and social devastation. Platonic Ideas in the abstract, Holmes came to see, are the bane of western civilization – separating us from nature, from reality, and from seeing things as they are. As I mentioned earlier, Holmes’s break with William James was over the psychologist-philosopher’s slight reserve in not abandoning all vestiges of “the unseen world.”

But the more I learn about William James, the more I like the man. He was a pleasant mix of contradictions – a one-man consortium of clarity and ambiguity.

While knowing that much of the world remains and will remain unseen to humankind forever, he thought Plato was a putz. The preeminent American intellectual of his day, James disliked and distrusted “intellectualism.” A product of burgeoning urban life, James turned to nature and rural retreats for his solace and refreshment. A true creature of reason and rationality, James – in a truly Modernist sense -- warned of the limits to reason. As one of the purest products of the Enlightenment since Thomas Jefferson, William James also warned of the excesses of Enlightenment path toward centralized reason and social control – a path whose destination was the death camps such as Auschwitz which James was lucky not to live quite long enough to see.

William James spent his long life seeking clarity but never at the expense of the richness of ambiguity. James saw that much of the last few thousand years of intellectual history – especially since the “stain of Puritanism” and the ascendency of American Protestantism – had been a migration toward a sometimes bone-dense and essentially stupid simplicity at the expense of classical ambiguity. Yet James’s own deep sense of the deeply ambiguous nature of reality, morality, and psychology was the bane of his own existence.

As a fairly young man at the height of his growing intellectual powers, from 1867 to 1873, James was struck down by abulia – an absolute crisis of will. As James wrote to a friend in 1869 – “I am very much run down in nervous force and have resolved to read as little as I possibly can . . . and absolutely not study, i.e., read nothing which I can be interested in and thinking about.”

William James put philosophy – his favorite subject and his lifelong vocation – at the head of his don’t-read list for these years. This abulia, this crisis of will that reached suicidal proportions, grew out of a condition that Francis Bacon had described, centuries earlier, as curiositas. This is not mere curiosity, but rather a sort of classical Greek-minded impotence in the real world brought on by excessive abstract thinking – “a mere gaping at things”

Some would say today – as Carl Sagan has – that the classical Greeks’ obsession with abstract reasoning, their centuries-old orgy of curiositas at the expense of experiment and empirical observation – cost them their future. Our future. If Ionian science had not been snuffed out by Pythagoras, Plato, and other curiositas-addicted abstract-obsessed intellectuals of their day, we might not have lost more than 2,000 years of scientific and technological inquiry. As Sagan might have said – “We might have great starships powered by Bussard ramjets plying their routes between the farflung interstellar colonies today if early Ionian science had been allowed to develop instead of being exterminated as heresy. The lettering on the sides of these large and beautiful ships of the stars might be in Greek.”

The Catholic Church adopted this Baconian aversion to purely abstract thought in the Middle Ages and upgraded abulia brought on by curiositas to the category of a mortal sin – acedia. Not only was acedia a sin to medieval Catholic theologians, but was number Eight on the hit parade of the Ten Deadliest Sins.

“As a kind of torpor that paralyzes action,” Posnock writes in The Trial of Curiosity, “acedia can often be mistaken for laziness. But the indifference and apathy it creates betokens a spiritual desolation, a state Aquinas believed epitomized ‘the despondency and indolence of a man who has deviated from his vocation . . . Acedia is a form of sadness that surrenders itself to its own heaviness and thereby turns away from the goal of its existence, indeed from all purposeful behavior and exertion whatever. Curiositas is only one of the forms that this purposelessness takes’” (Posnock, 41, citing Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, 334)

Anyone who has suffered what we now flatly call “clinical depression” has committed the sin of acedia.

In The Trial of Curiosity Ross Posnock also quotes Max Weber’s (pronounced, Vay-ber, kids) famous definition of modernity as the “disenchantment of the world.”

These are four powerful words. Few things describe the modern age and Modernist Thought as completely as the “disenchantment of the world.” Rather than decrying a loss of charm or enchantment, the phrase rejects mysticism, dismisses metaphysics as a root cause, and exiles all metaphysical elements – whether they be faeries, sprites, animist spirits, gods, God, or a Design to Evolution – from any discussion of the world and universe. And it does so with a Modernist aversion to ambiguity.

Such simplicity in a complete disenchantment of the world reduces the natural world to a quivering mass of mindless vegetable (and animal) matter. Even Weber saw that such “Purely objective considerations” become the norm for conducting business, which – in his words – demands obedience to “calculable rules ‘without regard for persons.’”

In this “rationalized modern world, nature is no longer the repository of cosmic balance and supernatural meaning but is disenchanted, transformed into raw material for the use of science and technology.”

The natural world as raw material and nothing else. How very uber-capitalist. William James thought this was horse puckey and William James said to hell with it.

The other problem with such Weberian disenchantment – as James saw it even before the disenchanting process was complete – was the inevitable corollary that the instrument of disenchantment is bureaucracy, which above all else prizes what Weber called “precision, speed, unambiguity . . . unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction.”

Anyone who loves, as I do, Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece “Modern Times” has seen the problems of Weber’s glowing ideal of “unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction.” Human beings and human nature tend to get caught up in the gears and sprockets of any truly Modernist bureaucratic simplification machine. And not every human can – as Charlie did when the machine made a grab for him – get someone to pull the Reverse Lever and get him to run backward through the gears and sprockets until he pops out where he went in.

Another Chaplin masterpiece – “The Great Dictator” – showed us the penalty of pursuing post-Enlightenment scientific-control bureaucracy to its logical but terrible extreme. But long before Hitler came to power, the objectivist (and fiercely Modernist) sociologist Luther Lee Bernard had this to say about the status of the “individual” (a term mocked by most Modernist and Postmodernist thinkers, who know that man exists only in reference to other people) in a world soon to be ruled by “truly scientific control.” This is from Bernard’s Transition to an Objective Standard of Social Control (1911) --

“The counter plea of “interference with individual liberty” should have no weight in court, for individuals have no liberties in opposition to a scientifically controlled society but find all their legitimate freedom in conformity to and furtherance of such social functioning . . . The chief opposition to such effective control comes from the old subjectivist, individualistic and hedonic (sic) dogma of personal liberty. (95-96)

Well, we’ve been there and done that in the 20th Century and we have the t-shirts to prove it – t-shirts with the bloody handprints of Stalinist Soviet Marxism, fascism, National Socialism, Maoism, unchecked capitalism, and now the global surge of jihadist Islamist hatred of civilization.

No Soviet, Nazi, Maoist Cultural Revolutionary, fundamentalist Christian, or Islamic court would ever agree, as Holmes would argue, that “Justice does not preexist the case at hand; justice is whatever result just procedures have led to.” Nonsense. Justice is the Divine Plan shown through the revelation of the Koran, or the Ten Commandments, or the writings of Karl Marx, or derived from the thoughts of der Fuhrer, or maybe the invisible tentacle of Adam Smith, or . . . you name it. We’ve been there and done all that. We’re heading there again.

Holy shit, Batman.

We’re back full circle to Premodernist Thinking and the imperative of the Abstract and worship of the metaphysical.

We’re definitely not in Kansas any longer, Toto. No, wait, we are. That’s precisely where we are. Kansas.

Sometimes I think the human mind is like a rubber band. Pull on it and twist it and wind it up as you will, it snaps back to its original shape. And that original shape sure resembles basic Premodernist Thinking. (“Let’s sit and wait for the next sign from the gods. Surely a revelation is overdue.”)

My Perfect Epistemelogical Storm has barely begun at this point. The thoughts of the James Boys (we never even got to Henry, did we?) and Holmes and Peirce and Dewey and Weber and Benjamin and Adorno and the others now have to be chopped, diced, and dissected by the sharp instruments and Foucaultian steel of postmodernist deconstruction, historicist perception, feminist and Marxist analysis, post-Marxist theory – all of the really fun sharp tools one uses at an autopsy these days, literary or intellectual.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to try to take you with me on that part of the Perfect Storm. I know it’s already past your bedtime.

But I have to tell you before you go that while I put little or no stock in the fruit of Derrida, I am a huge fan of Diderot. And Diderot once wrote – “Religion is the failure to understand causes reduced to a system.”

Could this be? Once again we return to Henry James and his understanding that Premodernist Thinking, Modernist Thought, Postmodernist Theory, and the inevitable Postpostprepostmodernist Thinking are all functions of psychology. Of the human brain in conflict with itself.

And what about that human brain?

I’ll end with one of my own favorite quotations, harvested years and years ago and written down in the little Commonplace Book of sketches and quotes I’ve carried around since 1978. This is from one of the top researchers into “artificial intelligence” – and human intelligence as well – MIT’s Edward Fredkin, cited in McCorduck’s Machines Who Think

“There is a popular view that the human mind is this fantastic thing that most of us are just barely using – 5 or 10 percent of its capacity. If we could only unleash the whole human mind and all its powers, we’d be supermen. Now my notion is that for an ordinary person to get along in society in a conventional way requires about 110 percent of the capacity of the human mind, causing breakdowns and troubles of various sorts. Basically, the human mind is not most like a god or most like a computer. It’s most like the mind of a chimpanzee and most of what’s there isn’t designed for living in high society but for getting along in the jungle or out in the fields.”

Amen! Hallelujah! The service is hereby concluded but you’re all invited over to the Fellowship Hall afterward for cake and purple Kool-Aid.



^top | more News>

Home     Books     Curtis on Publishing     Previews     Bio     Bibliography     Snapshots      Reader's Forum     Art