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To Be Human is to Be Historical: A Vichian Reflection on Modern Nihilism To Be Human is to Be Historical: A Vichian Reflection on Modern Nihilism
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2011-04-28 10:26:33
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“But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.”
                                                                                                                    --Pascal (Pensées, 346)

I’d like to follow-up to a comment I made on the occasion of Easter regarding the modern philosophical error of reductionism; that is, the tendency to reduce and explain a higher reality by a lower one. For example, the tendency to explain a spiritual reality such as the Resurrection of Jesus Chirst by the phenomenon of springtime and its attendants rabbits and flowers and eggs and the general resurrection of nature thus explaining the spiritual by the material and its transformations, when the proper approach should be that those natural phenomena point to, or are a symbol, of a spiritual reality.

Indeed, great errors as well as advances have been made during the formative years of the birth of early modern science. Since the 17th century, right after the Renaissance and beginning with Copernicus and Galileo, many significant novelties make their way in the world by indiscriminate criticism of what has gone before. The new is praised without measure, the old made fun of, and the claimed relevance of new discoveries is extended analogously without careful argument into ever more areas. Thus it was in the seventeenth century: this is the heart of Pascal’s gravamen against the narrowness of Descartes’ mathematical-geometrical definition of reality.

In one of his last lectures before his death three years ago titled “The Mind and its Now” Stanley Jake, a leading philosopher of Science had this to say about the mistake of Descartes’ “cogito”: “There can be no active mind without its sensing its existence in the moment called now. The realization of this is the driving force of modern philosophy from Descartes' cogito on. Without suspecting that the cogito, a personal reflective act, cannot be a starting point of knowledge, he took it for such. He failed to realize that it is not possible to know without knowing something. One tries in vain to cogitate without cogitating about something. And that something has to be a thing before one is cogitating though never in separation from a thing.”

Perhaps no greater mistake was made than in the matter of Aristotle. Early on it was clear that an Aristotelian account of physics or the heavens was no longer adequate. Naturally enough, this led to decreasing study of the Aristotelian texts, and with time to a decreasing sense of how and why Aristotle had framed central questions such as the nature of causation and teleology. We are on the way to a certain insistence in modern science that the proper study of science is the natural order, and not anything “behind” it, God, metaphysics, or finality. That is, we are on the way to a “surface” understanding of what the natural order is. Since the credibility of his physics had been damaged, an assumption against Aristotle’s thought in general grew in scientific circles. Many thought Aristotle’s ideas about causality were implicated in the inadequacy of his physics. An argument of the present essay is that Aristotle’s thought about causation, especially final causality, articulated issues that will not go away. Though his thought has been largely ignored in recent centuries, and is not the last word, it is of permanent significance and should not have been jettisoned with more problematic aspects of his thinking during the years of the origin of modern science.

Aristotle’s History of Animals provides a good entrance to his thought. Here he distinguished between simple and composite parts. Simple or homogeneous parts have a uniform nature: flesh is composed of pieces of flesh. Composite or heterogeneous parts do not have a uniform nature: a hand is not made of hands, but of a variety of parts. So it is for the entire animal. The interesting question is how an animal, once formed, is to be viewed. Aristotle’s preference was first to describe the completely formed animal (in today’s terminology, synchronically), and then the historical process by which the animal had been formed (in today’s terminology, ontogenesis or diachronically). This preference articulated his insight that by definition it was only the fully formed animal that expressed everything that the animal could be, that is, that defined the animal. Hence his emphasis on final causality, which looks to the end (telos) of whatever is to be defined.

For most biologists or zoologists today this is backwards. They commonly think of the parts as what is most basic to an animal, and are reluctant to speak at the level of the organism, let alone of an organic form which reveals purpose. To understand is to take apart, not to see the whole. To wit, Eisnstein’s famous statement: our era is characterized by perfections of means and confusion of goals. This is the perspective famously criticized by C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. Lewis dreamed of “a ‘regenerate science’ of the future that would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself. When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole.” To this regeneration one can add a science that would also remember history and origins. Not for nothing Vico dubbed his philosophy of history a new science.

Here debate about the criteria for defining the origins of humanity has centered on consciousness as a sure index of the appearance of man. There are no graves in the animal world, only humans construct them. But graves are an indication that humans have understood that they will die, are conscious of their finiteness. The idea of transcendence has appeared: “It is not necessarily with the use of tools that human existence begins, but rather with metaphysics.” The higher animals can use tools as it has been observed lately, but only man can transcend himself. This was already Pascal’s point in his famous “man is a thinking reed” passage (Pensées, 346): “But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.”

To anyone who knows anything at all about Giambattista Vico’s The New Science (1744), Pascal’s and the paleontologists’ observations on burial of the dead, are not new. Vico’s views have become the base from which Robert Pogue Harrison has launched a contemporary reflection on burial of the dead, and the relation of the dead to the living. Harrison is essentially in agreement with the paleontologists: humanity “is a way of being mortal and relating to the dead. To be human means above all to bury.” Religion and the idea of a transcendent reality are grounded in the burial of the dead which points to it. Humans have about them a “history-making mortality,” the aboriginal sign of which is the grave marker.

All this is very much in agreement with a line of thought developed by John Lukacs, who has been arguing throughout a series of books that scientific materialism has it completely backwards. It is not matter that produces mind, but human consciousness that shapes everything. It is nonsense to talk about humans as anything but at the center of reality, for it is humans who are conscious and can speak of centers. And humans have no choice as conscious beings other than to be at the center. This is the deep significance of Aristotle’s “anthropomorphism”: his option to privilege human experience epistemically. In showing the many limitations of Darwinism, Lukacs goes further than some of the paleontologists, arguing for the incoherence of the application of the idea of evolution ever further backwards in time, one result of which has been the claim that humans existed as much as a million years ago. The hidden assumption here is the materialist one that matter preceded human mind, mind only gradually appearing. Lukacs has no patience with this “dribs and drabs” theory, and rejects the very idea of a “pre-historic” man. Humans are defined by the fact that they are historic or conscious beings, beings defined by historicity, conscious beings oriented in time. They have no pre-history, only history. From such materials Michael Schulz has brilliantly constructed a counter-cultural position. Schulz argues that the very terminology “cosmos” or “universe” makes no sense other than as expressed by a human. It is indeed true that the earth is a minor planet, and that in one sense the universe has no center. But statements such as these are not possible without the man who makes them. In this sense, as the surveyor of reality, man is its center. As Albert Einstein and Henri Poincaré insisted, the only time we have is our time. The very notion of history must be human-centered.

In both Vico’s and Lukac’s provocative formulation, “We did not create the universe. But the universe is our invention” and it has a history and a development and a purpose.  The universe’s unity appears to, and in some sense depends on, a conscious perceiver. Berkeley adds to this the notion that without a perceiver there is no existence either. Schulz in some respects goes further than Lukacs the historian. He asserts that  “One does not become more objective by attempting to gain a neutral perspective from which to view finitude in abstraction from the human knower, which in any event is epistemologically impossible. If the cosmos can be grasped as cosmos only in man, and if independently from man it does not even exist (at least as cosmos), then the most objective view of the world is given within the horizon of man’s orientation to God . . . . If the ultimate meaning of the essence of the cosmos is dependent upon the reality of man, then the cosmos with man is qualitatively more than it is without him.”

Only by standing in a relation with God can man talk of such things as the unity of the world, of categories such as infinity and finiteness. Perhaps it is time to revive the ancient medieval idea of man as microcosm. That is, there are two further, related, considerations: (1) what the unity of the universe is correlative to is an embodied consciousness—and, as far as we know, man is the thing that fulfills that role; (2) this is not just phenomenological, but ontological. This I take it, was the intuition expressed in the idea of man as microcosm. Schulz develops the question of the early history of humans somewhat differently than does Lukacs. For Schulz, who accepts evolutionary theory, the question is not so much whether we may properly speak of human beings where there is no human consciousness, but the way in which history articulates all that it is to be human. He writes that “Evolution . . . testifies to the anthropocentric character of the cosmos . . . evolutionary development ends up with ever more complex structures. The more the complexity grows, the more we are able to distinguish between an interior and an exterior in a living being, and the more the form of subjectivity takes shape.” In sum, as Vico points out in New Science, though humans initially may not have appeared with a high degree of consciousness nor much historical sense, they are “not bound up with the things of this world in an absolute way like the animals. Man is . . . a creature of transcendence; this creature is the window through which the cosmos ‘sees’ its origin.

To sum up, a number of ancient thinkers observed that there is a fit between nature and consciousness. This valuable observation did not lead to an anthropocentric view of the world in the modern sense that human consciousness is a pre-condition for knowledge; but the mixed blessing of the modern “turn to the subject” now allows us to see the centrality of human consciousness in organizing the world. It is not that there is no organization without human consciousness, that the universe is not already a universe before we know it, one that we are “fit” to understand, but that human consciousness is apparently the only vehicle by which such organization can be discovered. This makes humans central to the very idea that there is a universe, and themselves a kind of microcosm. Among the forms of organization and pattern they can discover is the “immanent teleology” of heterogeneous beings, already known to Aristotle, but largely disparaged in the years of the birth of modern science, along with serious debasement of the understanding of causation from being a category of analysis to being one of temporal relation. Though Aristotle is not the last word on any of these issues, and his discoveries have to be expanded to give greater consideration to the place of the relations of things both to each other and to God, the contemporary rediscovery of certain categories of purpose—in particularly in biology—represents a great advance on the mechanistic world we have inherited from the age of Descartes. Purpose is not to be viewed as simply something extrinsic to individual living things, but as also something intrinsic to them, a description of their capacity for self maintenance as wholes. What is now needed is a synthesis that overcomes the dichotomy “intrinsic/extrinsic” to show that all heterogeneous living beings have not just an intrinsic and extrinsic ordering, but an order that is at once both. This is mirrored in Vico’s concept of Providence which is both transcendent, i.e., beyond space and time, and at the same time immanent within history.

Hence, with his insistence on consciousness and history as intrinsic to man’s humanity and even to the point of it all of the cosmos (its logos), Vico is the first philosopher and humanist to detect the enormity of Descartes’s blunder at the origins of modern philosophy, and to suggest a possible remedy. Three hundred years or so later the Vichian diagnosis of that error remains valid; unfortunately, the prognosis remains to be applied and those who claim that Vico’s new science has nothing to do with history and wish to claim that his science is based either Plato’s forms or Descartes’s abstract mathematical cogito as the origins of all that is new and progressive and modern are not part of the solution but very much part of the problem.

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