Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? – Mark 8:18
It’s a common enough refrain and lament in the Wisdom literature — eyes they have but see not; ears they have but hear not, neither do they remember. It’s a very simple way of stating that there are inner, spiritual senses which are primary, and for which the external or physical senses are only analogues and not primary. The Kali Yuga or spiritual dark age, or “Fall Into Time”, was really the fall into purely sensate consciousness. And this is also connected with Iain McGilchrist’s notion of the “usurpation” of the “Master” by the “Emissary”, as he describes in his book on neurodynamics entitled The Master and His Emissary. Besides the parable of the Prodigal Son, there are many other parables of the master and servant in Scripture that pertain to this also, but which have been likewise completely misunderstood.
[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.
Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. — Kierkegaard
We cannot really understand what it means to live the “post-modern condition” and what it might portend until we come to terms with the passing era called “Modernity”, which generally begins with the Reformation and Renaissance in Europe some 500 years ago in the midst of the disintegration of Christendom and the waning of the Middle Ages. The quotation of Kierkegaard above highlights the problem of what Lewis Mumford and Roderick Seidenberg refer to as “post-historic man” in this regard. It’s just another way of saying that if you don’t know where you’ve been, you can’t know where you are going. The problem of post-historic man (who Loren Eiseley also calls “the asphalt animal“) is that he is a creature who thinks and acts as if he were born yesterday, and also lives and acts as if there were no tomorrow. Necessarily, such a creature also becomes post-conscious, too. As both Jean Gebser and Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy have noted, consciousness is very much a matter of how we structure the times and spaces of our reality. Consciousness, consequently, can undergo the same processes of expansion or contraction characteristic of all dynamic processes found in nature or the cosmos at large. In effect, “post-historic man” belongs to Christopher Lasch’s “culture of narcissism”.
Lately, I have immersed myself in the history and philosophy behind the idea of evolution and, of course, the new human concern with and discourse about time. And in the course of my studies of man’s ever evolving understanding of time and the evolutionary idea, I realised what a tremendous Tower of Babel exists in the sciences and the common culture not just about the meaning of the term “evolution” and time, but of “Nature” and of the “natural”. There is a tremendous amount of unarticulated and unconscious presumption about the meaning of names like “evolution” and “nature” — or “life” for that matter — as if people knew exactly what these names describe and represent when, in fact, for the most part they know nothing and are simply faking it.
“Nature: The History and Philosophy of a Name” (or “Idea”) would make a very good book, and perhaps it has already been attempted. “Nature” isn’t just another word, like “the” about which hardly anyone quibbles. “The” has determinant meaning and is non-controversial. “Nature”, though, isn’t just a word, it’s a name — a name for something we know not what, but which we only presume to know, much like the name of “Truth” or “Life” itself, or, for that matter, the idea of democracy.