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Can Western Civilization's Center Hold?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2011-08-30 07:42:38
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“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”                                                                                                              

                   --William Butler Yeats (From “The Second Coming”)

A few days ago I started teaching a philosophy introductory course at Broward College. The adopted textbook is titled Does the Center Hold? as authored by Donald Palmer, an educator who has been teaching philosophy for most of his academic career and is now a professor emeritus. I was intrigued by the title and the humorous cartoons that the book contains. The book is now in its fifth edition; the first one came out in 1991, so the book can be considered an academic and financial success. Palmer is now a professor emeritus but continues to teach philosophy which obviously is a life passion of his.

In the introduction the author offers us an explanation for the title which he acknowledges borrowing from one of William Butler Yeats’ poems. But he does this in the context of philosophy as an academic discipline. I found this very intriguing and would like to share it with the Ovi readership.

Professor Palmer reflects on the fact that most of the time, for each of us individually, the center of the world we live in holds quite well thus making life predictable, if somewhat monotonous. From time to time social or natural disasters ensue and centrifugal forces seem to take over. As Yeats aptly puts it: “things fall apart.” I suppose the experience of death can be construed as the ultimate experience of things falling apart, at least on a physical biological level.

In the northeast of the US we have just experienced two such natural disasters: a rare earthquake and a hurricane (Irene). Another disaster we are going through currently, on both sides of the Atlantic, is a financial disaster, an economic hurricane the likes of which we have not seen for a while and which may put in jeopardy the economic structures, and indeed the very political survival of  Western Civilization as we know it. The potential for a return to fascism has resurfaced, as I have argued recently in Ovi magazine. That’s when the reasonableness and predictability and orderliness of things around us simply vanish. Indeed, it is the nostalgia for order and predictability which may allow dictators such as Hitler and Mussolini to enter the center stage of history.

That is at the social level. At a more individual level, most of us suffer bouts of “mini-madness” at certain intermittent times of our lives. At those times the center does not seem to hold, not to talk of that strange phenomenon called dreaming wherein we seem to slip into a world which is even more absurd and madder than madness itself. And of course, most of us upon waking up proceed to minimize that experience of unreasonableness by relegating it to the world of unreality. If Freud and Jung have left us any legacy at all, it is the fact that this dream world is very consequential to our “real” world, and we ignore it at our own expense.

The intriguing philosophical insight of Professor Palmer is this: the study of philosophy is a bit like the sensation of the onset of insanity. This is strange indeed. We usually think of philosophers as the kind of people who like orderly and logical thinking. Not so, says Palmer. As he puts it: “under the philosophical scrutiny of thought, knowledge, reality, and values, the commonsensical center and normal orderliness of the world seem to slip away.” He mentions Nietzsche’s experience of philosophizing as a cutting of our moorings and floating off into the darkness of outer space.

And that brings Professor Palmer, and us, to ask the crucial question: can philosophy put together solutions that hold? And if so do they last forever or does time and context require that all solutions be temporary, relative and partial? This is of course the crucial philosophical problem of relativism, alive and well in our brave new world. Like the ancients, the medieval and early modern philosophers, are we going to demand unalterable answers, sub species aeternitatem, so to speak? Or can provisional answers still be considered good answers; as far as the human intellect can go?

This overarching question gets us to the core of what philosophy may be as a subject. It may be, Palmer avers, that philosophy’s mission is an attempt to get to “the bigger picture” of reality, to see how “things hang together” if in fact they do and as Plato believed. Paradoxically, in that sense every answer is ipso facto temporary or provisional, because even Plato has to suspect that he too like everybody else might be in a dark cave looking at shadows and confusing them for reality. In other words, we need to determine, as students of philosophy, whether or not a scrutiny of human experience reveals some kind of unity. A healthy skepticism is integral part of philosophy and so the philosophy student has to decide whether the center holds or not, not just for him/her but for a civilization at large, and not just now but from its very origins. Vico, the pre-eminent modern philosopher of history jumps to mind here. Some will answer with Plato that it holds, some will answer with Vico that it holds roughly and remains underpinned by Providence, others will answer with Nietzsche that it does not hold and nihilism is the most rational approach.

The real debate, Palmer believes, is between those who think that the center holds absolutely, and those who hold that it holds relatively well, but not absolutely. One of those absolutists, Renè Descartes, acknowledged that his own philosophical questions frightened him. But Palmer goes on to explain that indeed the debate was already articulated in ancient Greece. It was the debate between Heraclitus (470 BC) and Parmenides (440 BC) view of reality.

Heraclitus wrote one of the most memorable aphorism in philosophy: “You can’t step in the same river twice.” Which is to say, within time, no two moments or events are the same. Old things fall apart and new things are born and everything becomes its opposite. This seems to be the nature of reality. But there is a hard center in the middle of this apparent chaos, the one thing that never changes: change itself. That is something you could always be sure of. Most philosophers of history, not excluding Darwin, adhere to this philosophical principle.

This was considered too pessimistic by other philosophers in ancient Greece. Enter Parmenides who defends the thesis that nothing ever changes and everything is eternally immutable; motion and time are mere illusions to be swept away by philosophy and reason. Here the center holds with a vengeance. Most absolutist Platonist philosophers also hold on with a vengeance to this interpretation of reality. They are Platonists in the sense that like Plato they want to prove that the center holds, that there is a rational unchanging core at the center of reality. Most philosophers will either aspire to this high Olympian standards, or will drift away from it and side with Darwin or Vico, even when acknowledging that, willy nilly, one needs to come to terms with Plato’s thought.

I am already looking forward to the ensuing debates in my introduction to philosophy class at Broward college; that is the debates between the absolutists for whom the center holds, and the relativists for whom the center holds somewhat, but not absolutely, especially in the light of the latest findings of physics and quantum mechanics. There have always been some students ready to defend one or the other of those positions in each philosophy class I have thought. The challenge for the instructor, I suppose, is to make them somewhat skeptical, and a bit less biased, toward their pet position and to encourage them to defend the opposite position. I may decide to write a sequel on those debates and their outcome at Broward college. Stay tuned! Eventually, somebody may come up with the final absolute answer to the question in the title of this article. But I doubt it.

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Prof. Griffin2011-09-02 12:52:50
Good luck. "One shows his 'commom sense' not by talking about it, but by using it." (Kant)
What conceptual tools will your students have to deal with modern logics, math and geometries, Darwinian vs Aristotelian methodology of scientific inquiry, etc? I don't think Palmer's text seems to meet the intellectual demands of the 20-21st standards of inquiry.
So I say - Good luck, esp. in FLA/USA.
"Center?" for whom? to where?

Emanuel Paparella2011-09-03 12:15:27
Indeed, Yeats suggests that things don't hang together and fall apart, but then we have Plato who seems to think otherwise. One is left to wonder if that explains his exclusion of the poets from the polis. In any case, we may perhaps agree that whether the center holds or not is a subject of debate so we do not let authoritarian politicians and pundits (the Glen and Limbaugh type) dictate to us what that center might be.

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