Sunday, April 12, 2009

The most enlightened age

Suppose someone wanting to learn to dance said: 'For hundreds of years now one generation after another has been learning dance steps, it's high time I took advantage of this and began straight off with a set of quadrilles.' One would surely laugh a little at him; but in the world of spirit such an attitude is considered utterly plausible. What then is education? I had thought it was the curriculum the individual ran through in order to catch up with himself; and anyone who does not want to go through this curriculum will be little helped by being born into the most enlightened age.--Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

This generation reclines a little to congratulate itself on being the last of an illustrious line; and in Boston and London and Paris and Rome, thinking of its long descent, it speaks of its progress in art and science and literature with satisfaction. -- Thoreau, Walden
We congratulate ourselves on living in an enlightened age, within the Enlightenment tradition (though we are besieged, oh yes, let us never forget), and yet collectively we take so little advantage of gained knowledge. And, believing in progress, we like to think that what we know now--or rather, what is known now, not what we know--is necessarily an advancement on what used to be known, but has been forgotten. Earlier ages are by definition more benighted than our own.

Recently Andrew Seal reported, with disappointment, on some lectures he attended given by Marilynne Robinson. I still haven't had the time to sample the lectures for myself, but apparently she was exercised about what she calls "parascience", presumably the extra-scientific writings from the likes of Richard Dawkins. Is she precisely anti-science? I don't know. I'm not sure it matters. Whether she is or isn't, I think she's saying, and has been saying, something important. (And unlike comrade Shelley at Read Red, I hardly think Robinson's wonderful novel Gilead is "deadly dull"; nor do I understand how one could have read the book and been able to conclude that it's little more than a "religious tract". On the contrary, I think the novel has much to say to us, with potentially deep implications for the Left.)

I employed another lecture given by Robinson in a post I wrote a year ago, in which I discussed conceptions of democracy held by the (American) revolutionary generation, conceptions all but lost now, conceptions I believe we would do well to revive. There is science, and then there is institutional Science, necessarily in thrall to Capital, and the diffusion and acceptance of bad science as general knowledge. In that lecture, she notes how Social Darwinism, which of course was accepted as Scientific Truth for some time and still has not been fully eradicated, scuttled what had been promising movements in the pursuit of equality. The problem, if anything, has only gotten worse. Naturally, this ties in with some of my recent themes here. With the global economy and, far more importantly, the environment in increasingly uncertain state, it seems clear to me that we're going to need to know the kinds of things that people once knew, that we're going to need to know how to do what people once knew how to do. A call for a true popular science, if you will.

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