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Whatever  Happened to the Former Love of Ideas? Whatever Happened to the Former Love of Ideas?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2014-12-13 14:31:56
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Whatever  Happened to the Former Love of Ideas?
Positivism vs. the Humanities in the 21st Century: Brain vs. Mind
Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

eman01 

Sacrificing to the god of post-modern materialism and positivism

When I was still in college in the mid-sixties books and ideas were considered very serious things, something to be passionate about; a sort of higher form of existence residing in the Platonic world of the intelligible. Dialogues and debates on ideas were considered a sine qua non of an education worth its salt. And this was true not only for philosophy majors, such as myself, but also for those liberal arts students  who majored in  history or the arts, or literature. Hermeneutics, or the interpretation of fiction, poetry, history and philosophy was not a mere tool useful for analytical procedures but, more importantly, it testified to one’s moral view of the world. Which is to say, ideas mattered. They mattered a lot. They had power over one’s life. They determined one’s intellectual and spiritual destiny. In some strange way one became the books one read.

Those ideas were found not only in the canon of philosophy from Plato to Heidegger, but in great novelists such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Lawrence, Mann, Kafka, Gide, Camus, Orwell, or the poetry of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Coleridge, Eliot. Philosophy and Literature was in fact understood to underpin all great historical epochs.

This leads to the question: which are the great philosophical ideas that still exert great influence and inspire the current artists? I for one would be hard put to answer the question. Obviously there has been a decline in the appreciation for the grand philosophical and aesthetic credos of the past. It began with the unmooring of metaphysics from philosophy by language philosophers. Then came the Annales’ school of historical thinking (Bloch and Febvre come to mind) which asserted that it was not world-historical individuals who shaped events (as Hegel and Emerson believed), but merely economic, social, geographical factors. They, and only they determined events and the fate of nations and people. This was positivism applied to history. There were more subtle forces at work within history, beyond the wars and revolutions instigated by emperors and generals. They could be extrapolated from the available historical data. This led to deconstruction which elevates the social-semiotic conditions of language over the authors who transformed them into literary art. Enter Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva who insisted that one had to pay attention to what was previously beyond our notice. One did that by phenomenology which looks at what is in front of our noses.

 eman02_400_01

Warhol brought the Campbell soup, or the obvious, to our attention. The banal, the ordinary, the popular became the focus of aesthetic expression. The interest was not so much in art but in the conceit that anything at all could be art. With this went the expulsion of all those ideas that were formerly part of the humanistic canon to create meaning in verbal, plastic and aural mediums. The task now was to unmask Western civilization’s hidden agenda and its doctrinal attitudes and assumptions about art, sex and race as embedded in linguistic and social codes. For those critics, the Enlightenment has generated ideas about the world that were simply naive about their own implications. Enter Barth with his “Death of the Author” and Foucault with his idea that man is nothing but the invention of the Enlightenment, while Paul de Man at Yale university argued that there is no such thing as the human. All this made for some unruly times in the humanities and produced eventually the end of ideas as still alive in mid twentieth century. There are presently no schools of thought in the humanities. One can indeed still study the tenets of the Frankfurt school and the Prague school and study the works of the neo-Marxists (such as Althusser, Lacan, Deleuze, Lyotard, Marcuse) or the deconstructionist writings of Derrida and de Man but the enthusiasm for ideas and the intellectual energy it generated is gone. It only exists as historical memory. This debunking movement went by the name of post-modern and it was essentially an anti-humanistic stance, even if it arose from within the humanities.

Literature nowadays is often taught without any longer drawing attention to form, imagery, character, metaphor, genre and the relationship between books and society. What has happened is that post-modernism has opened the humanities to the sciences, particularly neuroscience which pretends to explain how we think and express ourselves and affirms that the stuff of consciousness is nothing but a byproduct of the brain’s activity. To understand anything, and indeed everything, all that one needs to do is to map the electrochemical impulses that shoot between our neurons. Reduced to those terms, every academic discipline becomes a neuro-discipline. We are back to phrenology which we thought had been superseded. This includes ethics, aesthetics, theology, literature, you name it. All this leads to the crucial question: if all behavior has an electrochemical component, then in what sense—psychological, legal, moral--is an individual responsible for his actions? If the structures of the brain structures the person, in what sense we can say that there is such a thing as free will? In other words, is a person reducible to his or her physiological components? Is this not sheer reductionism or worse, a literally “mind-less” neuroscience?

 eman03_400

What those not trained in philosophy or the humanities fail to perceive is that the focus has subtly changed from the meaning and the interpretation of ideas to the means (the MRI and the brain scan) by which they’re produced. Hence the classical questions that have always intrigued us: What is justice? What is the good life? What is morally valid? What is free will,” have taken a back seat to the biases embedded in our neural circuitry.

Many misguided academic humanists believe that there is no better way for the humanities and liberal arts to save themselves from oblivion than to borrow liberally from the sciences. They claim that the more “scientific” the approach to the arts, the more seriously they are regarded. Several universities now have so called neuroscience centers with specialties in humanities hybrids. The message is this: cognition is literally the tissue that connects all sorts of humanistic endeavors.

And yet there are dissenting voices such as that of Thomas Nagel’s controversial book Mind and Cosmos wherein Nagel has the courage to question the neo-Darwinian belief that consciousness, like any aspect of adaptability, is evolutionary in nature. To the contrary, Nagel affirms that it is highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. Rather, he believes in a teleological universe with nature predisposed to give rise to consciousness, given that no mechanistic explanation seems commensurate with the miracle of subjective experience and the ability to reason. Bit his, alas, is the voice crying in the desert.

To be sure, other scientists have hypothesized that human life is inevitable and that biochemistry is wired into the universe. Stuart Kauffman, for one, believes that all molecules must sooner or later catalyze themselves in self-sustaining reactions or “autocatalytic networks,” crossing the boundary between inanimate and animate. But the more common view among academic scientists is that evolution has no direction, no goals, no set outcomes; our preferences and bias are due to our oversized brains. There are precious few professors who today continue to defend objective values. The zeal for ideas is fast declining. What deeply concerned intellectuals two or three decades ago is now considered anachronistic. Where are today’s Paul de Man, Edward Said, Harold Bloom, Hilton Kramer, Isahia Berlin, Susan Sontag, Annah Arendt? Nowhere to be found I am afraid. The liberal arts is no longer where the action is. In 2010 only 7.6 of bachelor’s degrees were in the humanities. The ideas that engage us and seem essential today are primarily scientific.

The passionate issues that galvanized intellectuals thirty or forty years ago seem now far removed from our daily lives. Those ideas engendered by the Enlightenment as regards epistemology, government, aesthetics, alas, no longer engage our best minds, except when we speak of the brain or the meaning of consciousness. We seem to have lost the appetite for locating hidden modalities in art and literature as metaphysics too continues to decline in academic worth and estimation. Will somebody arrive on the scene with the transformative power of a Descartes, Vico, Newton, Darwin, Marx, Freud, Kant, Wittengestein, Kuhn or Derrida? As the song goes “the answer my friend is blowing in the wind.”

 eman04

Leonardo conceived no dichotomy between Science and the Humanities

There seems to be at work in the humanities nowadays a troubling skepticism, almost a desperation of not being on the right track, of not being able to go anywhere. That in turn leads many humanists to rely on the old-fashioned methods of hard data and the empirical certainty of scientific research. Yet the questions of art, beauty, ethics, our innate capacity for wonder at existence, persist. The question “why is there something rather than nothing” still fascinates a few traditional philosophers. Perhaps it lies in our very genes and will never be suppressed. But overall, for the moment we have yielded those philosophical questions to biological and cognitive science and we have thereby achieved a certain amount of peace. Intellectuals no longer indignantly reach for their pens to debunk materialism and positivism, but it is a pseudo-peace, it is the peace of the cemetery and quite desperation. It is a peace which has put too much trust (or faith if you will) in the human brain, and in doing so it may have given up on the idea that only the mind, and not the brain, will some day be able to fathom the human condition.

How do I know that the neo-positivists of the 21st century are on the wrong track and just as misguided as those of the 19th and 20th century? It is actually quite simple: whenever I inquire of a neurosurgeon if he believes that ideas exist and cannot be denied as existing, the answer is always a resounding yes. But whenever I follow-up and ask if he has ever seen ideas floating around some place in the brain when he operates on it, or reflected in his brain scanner, a perplexed look seems to appear and there is usually no answer to the question. At best one gets an ambiguous: “give us some more time and eventually we’ll find them.” My reply to that statement is: good luck!

 


       
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Emanuel Paparella2014-12-13 23:56:46
A footnote: as is generally known, Western education for millennia was based on the Socratic assumption that “knowledge is virtue,” that to know the good is to do the good. In the times in which we live and have our being, this assumption is more and more frequently challenged. Today we have students who in choosing a major will not go beyond the question “how much money can I make with this kind of degree of higher education?” We have professors who in advising those students challenge the whole notion of a liberal arts education as useless and unproductive on a practical industrial level, and will not go beyond the question of cost-benefits analysis in judging any academic enterprise. The goal of education for those “professors” is to feed the markets and dish out producers and consumers. Some have appropriately called these professors “educrats,” They claim for themselves the title of professors and educators, but do not see the inherent contradiction apparent when they write articles which debunk the professorship in general or Ph.D. programs, branding professors as “pretenders.” Talking of pretenders, often their glaringly consistent misspellings even in their native language, and poor grammar and syntax, give away their educational or rather their miseducational background. For example: “its” consistently misspelled as “it’s,” just to give one example. Indeed we live in boorish times when ignorance has been elevated to the level of knowledge and wisdom, when sadly even education has been reduced to mere market forces and entrepreneurship. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle must be turning in their grave.


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