Sunday, 12 March 2017

Lovejoy and the hell-ocentric worldview

Arthur O. Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being (based on lectures held in 1933) tells the story of an influential idea in western thought, that of the 'Chain of Being', from Plato to Schelling. I read it to familiarize myself a bit more with pre-modern ideas of nature, prior to the establishment of the nature-culture distinction and the associated belief in the superiority of humankind as separate from and standing above nature (beliefs that, as Philippe Descola and others have pointed out, are both parochially Western and historically recent).

According to the idea of the chain of being, humankind was not separated from nature, but part of it, just one rung among others on the infinite ladder (the scala naturae) reaching up to God’s perfection. As Lovejoy points out a logical corollary of this idea was that humankind was only infinitesimally separated from other rungs. Hence there was a “consanguinity of man and the animals” (pp. 195-198, references here and below to the 2001 Harvard University Press edition).

Scala naturae, Didacus Valades (1579)
The idea, which made its first organized appearance in Neoplatonism, is defined by three principles: those of plenitude, continuity and gradation. These principles say that the world must contain all possible kinds of being (even imperfect ones) and that these must be linked in a chain of continuity and graded according to their degree of perfection. When these principles came together in Neoplatonism, the result was "the conception of the universe as a ‘Great Chain of Being’, composed of an immense... number of links ranging in hierarchical order from the meagerest kind of existents... through ‘every possible’ grade up to the ens perfectissimum” (p. 59)

One of the things I found interesting in the book was how Lovejoy conceptualized the transition from medieval to modern worldviews. He points out that the idea of the chain of being, although forming an important undercurrent in medieval thought, was prevented from becoming dominant during the middle ages since it faced competition from anti-rationalism of scholastics like Duns Scotus or William of Ockham who saw the inscrutable will of God as the sole ground of all value distinctions. What defines the arrival of the modern is not so much the triumphant rise of what most of us think of as 'modern science' as the liberation of the idea of the chain of being from its old scholastic competitor. Freed from this competitor, the idea of the chain of being blossoms to its full splendour in early modernity, above all in the 18th century when it becomes a dominant motif in Alexander Pope's poetry and forms the philosophical core of Leibnitz' "optimism".

In telling this story, Lovejoy makes an interesting digression on medieval cosmology prior to the heliocentric worldview. The aim of the digression is to show that the 'Copernican revolution' wasn't very important in establishing the modern worldview. It certainly didn't mean a shift from a worldview in which humankind was central to creation to one in which it wasn't. “It is an error", he points out, "to suppose that the medieval world was a small affair, in which the earth bulked relatively large” (p. 99). The Ptolemaic system thus saw the earth as a mere dot compared with the heavens, and so did Maimonides.
It has been shown that the distance between the centre of the earth and the summit of the sphere of Saturn is a journey of about eight thousand seven hundred years of 365 days, assuming that one walked forty leagues a day [i.e., the distance, in round numbers, is 125 million miles]... Consider this vast and terrifying distance... Consider, hten, how immense is the size of these bodies, and how numerous they are. And if earth is thus no bigger than a point relatively to the sphere of the fixed stars, what must be the ratio of the human species to the created universe as a whole? And how then can any of us think that these things exist for his sake, and that they are meant to serve his uses? (Maimonides, quoted on p. 100)
In the following striking passage, Lovejoy then points out that the tendency of the geocentric system was the opposite of giving man a high sense of his own importance.
For the centre of the world was not a position of honor; it was rather the place farthest removed from the Empyrean, the bottom of creation, to which its dregs and baser elements sank. The actual centre, indeed, was Hell; in the spatial sense the medieval world was literally diabolocentric. (p. 101f). 
To paraphrase somewhat, the medieval worldview prior to the heliocentric order was hello-centric.

L'image du monde by Gautier de Metz (1464), showing Hell in the centre of a universe made of concentric circles.
This worldview lingered on in Montaigne, who described the man's dwelling-place as "the filth and mire of the world, the worst, lowest, most lifeless part of the universe, the bottom story of the house" (quoted on p. 102) and John Wilkins who mentions as an argument against Copernicus that the earth because of its vileness "must be situated in the centre, which is the worst place, and at the greatest distance from those purer incorruptible bodies, the heavens" (quoted on p. 102). As Lovejoy concludes, "the geocentric cosmography served rather for man's humiliation than for his exaltation" (p. 102).

The Copernican hypothesis, then, wasn't important in challenging notions of humankind's centrality. More important was the growing sense that the universe might be acentric, associated with the assumption that the stars might be suns like our own, that these might be encircled by planets inhabited by rational beings like us, and so on - all ideas associated with the Chain of Being and the idea of boundless plenitude.

In Lovejoy's portrayal of early modern thought, then, there are few traces of any ideas of human superiority over nature or human centrality in the universe, and interestingly he argues that the tendency to assign a peripheral role to humankind increases in early modernity, thanks to the dominant influence of the idea of the Chain of Being.

Before ending, it is of course relevant to point out that another part of his argument is that this idea starts to wither away towards the end of the 18th century, when it collides with the idea of progress. To some extent it adapts by opening up for temporality in the realization of plenitude. The program of nature is now seen as carried out only gradually, in a slow ascent up the “ladder”. The idea of timeless fullness is replaced by that of unending progress. With this, a new era of thought begins on which the book hardly touches at all.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Elena Ferrante and Mephisto

Ferrante's Neapolitan novels are terrific – I especially liked the first volume, but also read the others voraciously. 

Just a small note: The epigraph in the first volume is from Faust and deals with Mephisto. During the reading I realized that it must have been chosen with Lila in mind. Throughout the novels, the narrator (Elena Greco) uses her brilliant friend Lila as an anti-ideology device. As soon as Elena gets puffed up with success, Lila says something mean, brutal or harrowing that disorients her and makes her lose self-confidence. At the same time, Elena is painfully honest about the fact that she owes all her successes to Lila. Above all, Lila is the one who makes her write, and write well. 

So her friend is Mephisto: the Geist der stets verneint, but who in so doing brings forth the good. Like in Hegel, Lila is the terrible force of the Negative that always gets aufgehoben into a positive, synthesizing totality. Between the two friends a tension is generated that holds the reader in suspense. Who will carry off the victory? The positive or the negative? Who will have the last word? Hegel or Adorno?

Ferrante comes closest to openly disclosing this logic in the final, fourth volume (all references below are to The Story of the Lost Child, Europa editions, 2015). 

For instance, Elena tells her friend that as a writer she has a duty to make everything seem coherent. “But if the coherence isn’t there, why pretend?”, Lila asks. “To create order”, Elena replies (p. 262).

Later Elena reflects: “I said to myself that to be adult was to recognize that I needed her impulses. If once I had hidden, even from myself, that spark she induced in me, now I was proud of it... I was I and for that reason I could make space for her in me and give her an enduring form. She instead didn’t want to be her, so she couldn’t do the same” (p. 371).

Anticipating her own disappearance (which sets off the novel in the first volume), Lila tells Elena: “To write, you have to want something to survive you. I don’t even have the desire to life, I’ve never had it strongly the way you have. If I could eliminate myself now, while we’re speaking. I’d be more than happy” (p. 454).

And finally, there’s Elena’s admission near the end: “Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity” (p. 473).

But extracts cannot substitute for what should be read in its entirety. They're like pebbles in the sea. When you pick them up and let them dry in the sun, they lose their lustre.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Kant's metaphors

I'm just now reading Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and I'm struck by his metaphors, many of which draw on colonialism, voyages of discovery, sovereignty and constitutional monarchy. I'm starting to wonder to what extent it might be possible to read these metaphors as indicators of a certain layer of ideas - not so deep as to be unconscious and not entirely visible at the surface level of explicit discussion, but residing in the topsoil of the text, so to speak. 

Let me start with the startling and almost poetical passage at the beginning of Chapter III in the second book ("The Ground of the Distinction of all Objects in General into Phenomena and Noumena") where the realm of understanding is described as an island (page references are to Norman Kemp Smith's translation):
WE have now not merely explored the territory of pure understanding, and carefully surveyed every part of it, but have also measured its extent, and assigned to everything in it its rightful place. This domain is an island, enclosed by nature itself within unalterable limits. It is the land of truth -- enchanting name! -- surrounded by a wide and stormy ocean, the native home of illusion, where many a fog bank and many a swiftly melting iceberg give the deceptive appearance of farther shores, deluding the adventurous seafarer ever anew with empty hopes, and engaging him in enterprises which he can never abandon and yet is unable to carry to completion. Before we venture on this sea, to explore it in all directions and to obtain assurance whether there be any ground for such hopes, it will be well to begin by casting a glance upon the map of the land which we are about to leave, and to enquire, first, whether we cannot in any case be satisfied with what it contains -- are not, indeed, under compulsion to be satisfied, inasmuch as there may be no other territory upon which we can settle; and, secondly, by what title we possess even this domain, and can consider ourselves as secured against all opposing claims. (p 258)
This is a language not only of adventure and discovery, but also of conquest and colonialism. Kant puts himself in the role of a colonial captain who is preparing for settlement and who is much concerned about the "title" to the territories explored so far. This language recurs when later he discusses the limits of reason, which mustn't extend itself beyond the field of possible experience:
... inscribing its nihil ulterius on those Pillars of Hercules which nature herself has erected in order that the voyage of our reason may be extended no further than the continuous coastline of experience itself reaches -- a coast we cannot leave without venturing upon a shoreless ocean which, after alluring us with everdeceptive prospects, compels us in the end to abandon as hopeless all this vexatious and tedious endeavour. (p. 362)
Again, in the discussion of the paralogism of reason, Kant warns against taking even a single step beyond the realm of sense perception:
For by such procedure we should [...] have entered into the field of noumena; and no one could then deny our right of advancing yet further in this domain, indeed of settling in it, and, should our star prove auspicious, of establishing claims to permanent possession. (p. 371)
Passages like these raise the question to what extent Kant's philosophical endeavor was coloured by the historical experience of Columbus and Cook. I'm not suggesting that the former simply reflects the latter or replicates it in thought, but at least it seems certain that it was from such experiences that Kant borrowed the metaphors by which he envisoned it.

Considering this explicit modelling of philosophy on voyages of discovery and colonialism, might we not suggest that the critique of pure reason is also a critique of colonialism? I think we can, at least if we take critique to mean, not necessarily a negative appraisal, but rather a scrutiny of possibility. Rather than as an imperialist, he can more accurately be described as a cartographer, carefully mapping the bounds beyond which colonial ventures must fail. Far from advocating overseas empires beyond the realm of the sensible, Kant seeks to prove the illusory character of such advocacy.

Speaking of territory, the issue of sovereignty is of course close at hand. Kant's use of metaphors related to sovereignty and political struggles is perhaps most apparent in the Preface to the first edition of the Critique, where he describes metaphysics as "the Queen of all the sciences" (p. 8).
Her government, under the administration of the dogmatists, was at first despotic. But inasmuch as the legislation still bore traces of the ancient barbarism, her empire gradually through intestine wars gave way to complete anarchy; and the sceptics, a species of nomads, despising all settled modes of life, broke up from time to time all civil society. (p. 9)
In addition to nomadic skeptics, the queen's empire is also threatened by the plebs of common experience ("dem Pöbel der gemeinen Erfahrung", unhappily translated as "vulgar origins in common experience", p. 9).

In relation to this queen, Kant comes forward as an advocate of constitutional monarchy. Her realm is defended against nomads and plebs, but at the same time her power is circumscribed by the "tribunal" of critique, as befits "the matured judgment of the age, which refuses to be any longer put off with illusory knowledge" (p. 10).
It is a call to reason to undertake anew the most difficult of all its tasks, namely, that of self-knowledge, and to institute a tribunal which will assure to reason its lawful claims, and dismiss all groundless pretensions, not by despotic decrees, but in accordance with its own eternal and unalterable laws. This tribunal is no other than the critique of pure reason. (p. 10)
The monarchy, then, mustn't be despotic. As befits an enlightened age, the precise reach of monarchial power must be prescribed by critique. Kant's metaphors even suggest that "revolution" might be a way to establish this desired form of monarchy:
This attempt to alter the procedure which has hitherto prevailed in metaphysics, by completely revolutionising it in accordance with the example set by the geometers and physicists, forms indeed the main purpose of this critique of pure speculative reason. (p. 26)
Looking at passages like this, it feels like it wouldn't be impossible to extract an entire political philosophy from the Critique. To read a political message into it would probably go against Kant's own intentions (or wouldn't it?). Still, I can't help marvelling at the extent to which Kant, in his use of metaphors, provides a kind of sketch or map of the issues and concerns of his own historical situation, that of the 18th century, reproducing them as philosophical concerns in the mirror world of his system.


Kant, Immanuel (1929) Critique of Pure Reason (tr. Norman Kemp Smith), e-version prepared by Stephen Palmquist and placed in the Oxford Text Archive in 1985; 2017-01-14)

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