“Where there is no vision, a people perish….” Proverbs 29:18
I was once involved in an exchange with political scientist Corey Robin about his book The Reactionary Mind, which soon descended into nastiness. For one thing, I took issue with the book’s reductionist thesis that equated conservatives with reactionaries. Robin’s logic seemed to be that a) modern conservatives are descended from Edmund Burke and his Reflections on The Revolution in France, (the liberal revolution) and b) Burke was a reactionary who sought to roll back the revolution in France and the Age of Revolutions more generally, ergo conservatives are reactionaries and backward looking. By contrast, Mr. Robin identified with the Jacobins, and is also associated with the journal by that name.
Things got rather tense between us when Robin began to lump Nietzsche in with the reactionaries too, but also any “visionary” whatsoever, which is a very strange thing for a revolutionary to argue. I began to suspect Mr. Robin was afflicted with a large dose of cynicism and of post-modern nihilism. Apparently, he hadn’t entertained the meaning of the proverb that without vision the people perish. It was the first thing that popped up in my mind as a response to him.
But if “vision” is so important to a people’s survival, we ought really to understand what it is.
Experimentum crucis means the “crucial experiment”, the decisive experiment — the crux of the matter — that ultimately decides between two or more different hypotheses to account for some phenomenon or other, and usually sets the course for any further research and development in that area. So a crucial experiment is also a crossroads experiment, and “crossroads” is pretty much what the word “crux” means — the hinge point, the pivotal juncture.
This is also quite meaningful when everyone today speaks of “humanity at the crossroads” (or in Mr. Fukuyama’s case America at the Crossroads). There is a widespread sense that we are at a global crossroads. This is what Rosenstock-Huessy also wants to be understood by his “cross of reality” and grammatical method as the “crucial method”. Everyday of our lives, we are at a crossroads, having to decide between continuity or change, past or future, individually and socially. In that sense, every day of our lives, and the life of society too, is an experimentum crucis.
[Newton] pushed open a door that led to a new universe: set in absolute time and space, at once measureless and measurable, furnished with science and machines, ruled by industry and natural law. Geometry and motion, motion and geometry: Newton joined them as one.” — James Gleick, Isaac Newton.
In yesterday’s post, I began a critique of James Gleick’s biography of Isaac Newton, which I found riddled with misunderstandings and errors. Today, I would like to conclude that critique. If one thing is true about Newton, though, it is that we have been the inheritors of that worldview, even unconsciously, — so much so that it has constituted our “common sense” and, consequently, the very structure of our consciousness and our understanding of “modernity”. It has conditioned our perceptions of reality, and has even constituted our social and political arrangements and even reformed our language so that we speak of “individuals” and “masses”, or of momentum, or inertia or social “forces”, or “gravity of events”, and so on. We frame social movements in terms of Newtonian dynamics. We have re-engineered our social systems to reflect the picture of the Newtonian-Cartesian cosmos.
I raced through James Gleick’s biography of Isaac Newton last evening, who Gleick describes as “the chief architect of the modern world”. Although I could get disputatious with him about that characterisation of Newton as the architect of the modern world (and therefore of the mental-rational structure of consciousness) it has some merit. But one could say as much about Rene Descartes, too, and when we often speak of the “Newtonian-Cartesian world view” or the “Cartesian-Newtonian paradigm” as we so often do, it is in that joint sense.
At the same time, neither Newton nor Descartes are understandable as separate from the invention of perspective by the Renaissance artists. Perspectivism laid the foundation for the “objective attitude” and new approach to reality that informed both Newton and Descartes, as cultural philosopher Jean Gebser (among others now) has described that in his Ever-Present Origin. Da Vinci, as the perfecter of perspectivism, could just as well be called modernity’s “chief architect”, which is why his Vitruvian Man and his Mona Lisa have become even iconic of the Modern Age.
In the last two posts on the evolution of the idea of “Nature”, I’ve briefly touched on the historical transition from Life-World to the World Machine and the re-imagination of the cosmos and nature in terms of “cosmic machinery” (as Clockwork Universe), in consequence of which, too, followed the re-imagination of the inhabitants of this World Machine as being equally only automata, and how this underlies the sociological critique of Technological System (Jacque Ellul) and of the “Megamachine” (Lewis Mumford).
This was the “novo modo” of the “modern” Age — the modus being “The Way”, and the “Way” was the way of mechanism. That’s what the word “modern” means: “The Way”. Today, I want to examine the fundamentals of this “Way” and why what Jacob Bronowski calls “the crisis of mechanism” is implicated, also, in the post-modern condition, for “the Way” and “the Master Narrative” are, essentially, the same.