Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Locke, Newton, and the Rejection of Reality

The text of The Sacred History of Being is now being proofed for publication, chapter by chapter. Seven of the chapters are available on this blog. Recently 
I’ve been exchanging mail with a friend in the US who knows something of the wider implications of the arguments in the book.

Sometimes unexpected things happen as the result of such conversations. I received an email from her a few days ago telling me that at an open house event for the Philosophy Faculty at Baudouin College in Maine, in connection with her nephew’s graduation, she had described my work to the Head of the Faculty (the "Chair"), partly in connection with some remarks I’d made concerning John Locke and his rejection of the idea that something might arise out of nothing, since that defied common sense  (a common view in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries). The Chair of the Faculty is a specialist in John Locke.

My! The Sacred History of Being isn’t yet published, yet it is out there already, engaging people in argument!

She wrote to me a few weeks ago in response to a case I’d made concerning the western rejection of paradoxical ideas:

Interesting points about the east-west division being the consequence of something more profound than colonial bias, i.e. a division between philosophy which embraces paradox and "common sense" understanding/rationalism (I take it that you don't consider Locke's ideas to be true philosophy, that the only true philosophy is one that embraces paradox). I agree that reality is beyond human understanding. It seems to me that accepting that fact threatens a lot of people, especially Westerners, making them feel frightened, powerless, and lacking in control, but that Eastern cultures found ways to deal with it, including as you said, embracing paradox (doing a paper on "Siddhartha" in high school opened my mind to this way of thinking). The West's prioritization of doing business, commercial utilitarianism, is an interesting way to frame it. It seems to me that the West has been drunk for a long time on our seeming power to control the world, most recently via technology, destroying the environment and civilizations in the process, and that we haven't wanted to acknowledge or accept our limits. Unfortunately, the rest of the world seems to be following our lead.
I responded, mentioning that while a student at UCL I had taken the course on the History of Political Ideas,
 during which I had the opportunity to take a close look at John Locke (I may have written a paper). He argued that people are born as blank palimpsests, and that all knowledge is down to the association of ideas, since nothing pre-exists in our minds (Socrates spins!!). That’s the essential basis of  advertising, marketing and brands, and all efforts to seduce us into  accepting models of reality which serve the beguilers, not the beguiled.  He passes for one of the greats.
So, not true philosophy. But ‘true’ philosophy is hard to define.
This exchange has its roots in an earlier argument I’d made about the difficult relationship between east and west which has endured for centuries. Edward Said’s book Orientalism is the one which is the source of the idea that colonial attitudes and the imperatives of colonial power were responsible for negative western ideas about the east. This argument is a little thin, especially if you are looking at the detail of the relationship, over time, and in a number of cultural areas, including philosophy. Referencing Martin Bernal’s Black Athena, which sees the issue in terms of a developing eurocentric racism, I wrote that:

Bernal’s thesis, even to me in 1987, didn’t entirely seem to hold water. But he’d locked on to what had happened to the discipline of classics in  the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and he was spot on about that. Even if his research students didn’t understand the context of some of the details (they did a lot of the work).
 Where I was going at the time was that there was a problem with the interpretation of Plato’s arguments, which didn’t seem to have anything to do with their internal coherence. And it was classicists that were responsible.
I began to think around 1988 that there were characteristics of foreign and ancient philosophies which were the real problem. The west, particularly since Newton, has tended to avoid philosophy which embraces paradox, and instead prefers common sense understanding (John Locke in particular).

So this is a third explanatory framework, which may lie underneath both the colonial imperatives and the eurocentic racism, which might now be understood as expressions of a deep, though ill-defined cultural anxiety about where the west stands in the scheme of things, and how much sense it makes. I expanded on this theme:

Most eastern religions have a paradoxical core, because they understand reality to be beyond human understanding. I understood this when I was relatively young. But it doesn’t please everybody. It doesn’t suit the west.
Plato argues in the same way. But as far as the western tradition is concerned, Plato is the fountainhead of rational thought. And rational thought isn’t based on a paradoxical view of reality. So we have had a meaningless scholarly stand-off for nearly two centuries between those who argue Plato was doing research, and those who think he was expounding a doctrine (though they don’t know what it was).
What these scholars are actually doing is protecting us from Plato. As long as they are arguing within this irrelevant frame about his dialogues, Plato is as dangerous to the modern truths of the world as a stuffed Dodo.
If you put all that together with an antipathy to apparently illogical patterns of thought in the east (read as ethnic credulity and stupidity), and model yourself on the undisputed (and the only) creators of science, mathematics, art, architecture, and civilization itself, you have a heady brew. And of course the development of racist ideas on top, when scientists started to look for physical characteristics in populations that would allow them to place people on a scale of intelligence, or of civilisation. Typology looks scientific, but it always was about labelling and assigning value.
Where does that leave us? Effectively in a place where we have erected a physical and materialistic paradigm of reality which has no root. It does not mean anything, and cannot mean anything, since there is no way to understand how or why it might have come to be. We think we can say that it is here now, and that it wasn't here 14 or 15 billion years ago, so it seems to have exploded into existence out of whatever might have been there before, which we know nothing about. Or maybe it did come out of nothing, but we can't say anything about that at all, so we pass over the question in silence.

Such poverty. But we get on with things. I concluded with a description of the current cultural arc of the west:
We have inherited a number of axiomatic ways of approaching the world since Newton. We measure, we define, we control. What cannot be measured, defined, or controlled is dangerous and irrational. So we strive to get rid of these aspects of reality. What can be  measured, defined and controlled allows us to do business, and do it much better than anybody did it before.
I think that’s what it is about, in the end: doing business. The end point of this cultural arc is the complete destruction of all patterns of thought and belief which aren’t capable of what we define as rational analysis. They are useless at best, and dangerous at the worst. Knowledge will be what can be understood through measure, meaning will revolve around useful definition, and the edifice so created will be subjected to whatever kind of control is appropriate in the circumstances. A wholly commercial utilitarianism.
Like most cultural arcs, the process is unlikely to be completed, so I'm not despondent. How the process will be interrupted, I can't say. We can trace it back in the west as least as far as the Spanish conquest of the Americas. What they wanted was gold, and the souls of the indigenous population. Having custody of their souls through induction into the Catholic Church made it easier for the invaders to operate in strange and sometimes hostile territories. What happened to the social and material culture of the Americans was not a matter of importance; it was described by some of the priests, but it was not understood. As far as the Spanish were concerned, there was nothing to understand.

Since then our history has consisted largely of the struggles between competing empires and their pursuit of commercial gain. It is easier to engage in this struggle if the cultures being overrun and assimilated are thought to be irrational or of no worth.

Imperial struggle does not always result in the complete destruction of patterns of belief and material culture. But sometimes, as we can see happening now in the Near east, the absolute destruction of material culture, and all knowledge of what went before, is on the imperial agenda. The intention is that there will be one winner, and one model of reality. Isaac Newton did not start this process, but by making it possible (and profitable) to understand the objective world as real and a place to be understood through mathematics and calculation, he provided the tools.

No comments:

Post a Comment