Miscellany: on education, art, science, music, and the Tower of Babel


On music:

Music is among the great spring of joy among this vale of tears. The German philosopher Freidrich Nietzsche famously asserted that “without music, life would be a mistake.” You seemed somewhat tentative in your designation of music as art. On the contrary, some of Nietzsche’s earlier contemporaries considered music to be the purest of all arts in that it is not mimetic or representational. Because it is not bound to imitate one or another object, music is thus more freely creative. 

In one of the exchanges in the Republic dialogue, Plato actually suggested that music somehow captures the soul of a people: “…when modes of music change, of the State always change with them.” It is very interesting to see music of a given era simultaneously as a kind of soundtrack for the Zeitgeist, or “spirit of the time.” I sometimes worry that some of the computerization and intensive production of some contemporary music actually represents a fruition of the technocratic transhumanist agenda of merging us with the machines. It would be necessary to render the human being compatible for such an interface and, as Plato also notes: “Music is a more potent instrument than any other for education, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul.” 

You wrote that music is universal and it can help in healing with breaking down barriers and borders between folks. Of course, music also serves to establish such cultural differentiation and diversity. Still, I agree wholeheartedly with your statement. Do you think it is also a universal language? I ask this as an allusion to The Tower of Babel story. I wonder if humanity used to speak in song but they abused the harmony and thereby brought about its transformation into prose and monotone.

On the purpose of education:

“The highest education is that which does not merely give us information, but makes our life in harmony with all existence”

—Rabindrinath Tagore

You observed that the purpose of education is to educate people. You at once rejected this answer as unsatisfactory and I agree with your judgment. Still, it leads me to wonder: why don’t you answer every question like this? For instance, if I ask “what is the springtime?” why don’t you answer “the springtime”? In some ways, the seemingly empty tautology is far more interesting than it at first appears because, ultimately, any answer other than this one would be incorrect in principle. The answer must be implicit in the question because otherwise we would have no criterion to discern the answer’s correctness. One of the most famous verses from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets speaks to the phenomenology of estranged identity:

“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.”

In fact, I think the passage from “Little Gidding” is worth continuing for the further light that it sheds on this experience:

“Through the unknown, remembered gate

When the last of earth left to discover

Is that which was the beginning;

At the source of the longest river

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea.”

In a certain sense, the question summons us to a quest. The latter entails nothing other than attaining the ability to truly understand it. Between the terms of your initial tautology—between the call to adventure and the triumphal return—we must imagine the rest of your reflection interposing itself. If I read the first term, and then read your paper, and then return to where I left off and proceed to read the second term, I will discover that “education” is capable of communicating a much fuller meaning to me in my second encounter than in my first—especially when I am able to integrate your final definition into my understanding of the term, and see that “education is education” means “education is the process of learning how to order our freedom and creativity towards the end (telos) of achieving higher understanding”!

Having said all of this, your initial statement is less of a tautology than it might seem because your reformulation is more than that since it adds substantial positive content. You wrote that “the purpose of education is to educate people.” This is significant because it can serve as an admonition not to treat education as something abstract, but rather as a process that always involves participation from actual human beings. Just as it is an abstraction to imagine “walking” except in connection with earth to walk upon, so education is not possible in a vacuum. You indicated your exasperation with curricula that are ordered towards success in multiple choice evaluations: perhaps this is an example of education that fails to include actual human beings in its concept of education but only generic ones, which do not exist except as abstractions. 

You briefly mused on whether there is a relation between freedom and creativity and the statement in the Latin Vulgate that “creavit Deus hominem ad imaginem suam ad imaginem Dei” (Genesis 1:27). No intelligent person (with the possible exception of Michelangelo Buonarroti) has ever conceived of this “image” in terms of visible likeness—in fact the proscription on fashioning “graven images” is likely intended to arrest this propensity towards sensory literalism that is the hallmark of idolatry as such (i.e. equating a representation with the entity that is being represented). Instead, the imago Dei has been understood as an indication that the human being, in its essence, partakes in something divine. I emphasised earlier the importance of the preposition ad, which indicates a vector and directionality in relation to the image. It does not read “in imaginem,” which would suggest a completion, but “ad imaginem,” which suggests a process of attainment. The etymology of the term “education” itself indicates a similar evolutionary gesture. Education is “to lead forth from” or “to lead out of” (ex- “out of,” “forth from” + ducare “to lead,” “to guide,” “to conduct”). Sometimes the imago Dei is difficult to perceive, even in ourselves, and it is as though it is hidden behind darkened glass. Maybe the purpose of education is to reveal the divine image in man. 

On scientism and Karl Popper:

Scientism is the belief that science is suited to answer all kinds of questions and not merely scientific ones. This can never be demonstrated scientifically so instead it must be considered an article of blind faith. Karl Popper is a well-known philosopher of science who lived in the 20th century. He is famous for postulating the criterion of “falsifiability” for scientific theories. To wit, if a theory cannot be falsified, then it cannot be considered scientific. Popper was adamant that neither Marxism nor Freudian psychoanalysis could meet this criterion. It should probably be observed that neither (1) the belief that scientific theories must be falsifiable nor (2) the belief that science can answer all kinds of questions is falsifiable either. For that reason, the theory of falsifiability must either be incomplete or untrue, by its own standards. Scientism, by contrast, can only be untrue since its truth would contradict its semantic content.

On knowledge and understanding:

Do you mean to say the knowledge is to be thought of as a state or condition of the mind and can thus be understood as an abstract noun, while understanding is to be seen as the process that traverses knowledge to join perception (e.g. “it is raining”) on the one side to action (e.g. “I will remove my clothes so they don’t get wet”) on the other and thus is to be understood as a verb?

This possibility of understanding as a verb is very intriguing because I have made the observation that, of everything that I could claim to “know,” most of it is not actively present to me. At any given moment I can only actively be thinking on a small portion of what I consider to be the totality of my knowledge. And it is only in actively thinking on something that I can experience the understanding of it. As long as I am not actively thinking on it, my understanding of it remains as a trace in memory or a potential in intellection, but not as an actuality. For instance, I remember having understood the Pythagorean theorem and I am confident that I could achieve the same understanding again if I resolved to do this, but unless I think about it, these remain articles of faith. Knowledge, then, is sustained by faith except for that small portion that we are actively sustaining by intellection. Is this consistent with what you have proposed? 

On the opposition between reason and love in science:

To love something means to affirm it in its reality without condition. To love something is to make that thing its own standard against which its perfection is judged. The reverse of this is to judge something against a standard that is ulterior to it; to place all manner of extrinsic conditions and expectations upon it. As a rule, this is what we do when we imagine to be seeking to understand something. Instead of under-standing something on its own terms, we stand over it and impose the standards of our own priors onto it in our attempt to conform it to our rack of concepts. Only the most “delicate empiricism,” to invoke Goethe’s most felicitous expression, is capable of avoiding this tendency. Indeed, I think it does not even occur to many researchers that such a tendency even exists and, by the same token, it does not occur to them to strive to stave it off. Thus, to understand something, as we currently conceive of this process, implies the opposite of loving it. Thus, we can only rationally understand something through antipathy. The famous Enlightenment philosophy Immanuel Kant offers the most evocative expression of this spirit:

Reason must approach nature with the view, indeed, of receiving information from it, not, however, in the character of a pupil, who listens to all that his master chooses to tell him, but in that of a judge, who compels the witnesses to reply to those questions which he himself thinks fit to propose.

There is, of course, a certain element of truth to what Kant says. But it lacks the reciprocal approach that could provide for a true relationship. The mind must pose the questions, but it must learn from the object of its inquiry, which questions are fit to pose and by which standards it is to be judged. We must listen to the other if we are to know what to say to her. To speak first is to foreclose true communication and rather send the exchange down a predetermined path. I see this as an ideal for science and a promise of what is possible in respect to the human being’s relationship to Nature and, in the most essential sense, the relationship that each of us fosters with the world. Goethe wrote, “There is a delicate empiricism that makes itself utterly identical with the object, thereby becoming true theory. But this enhancement of our mental powers belongs to a highly evolved age.” 

Perhaps—and now I speak somewhat conjecturally, but also out of an inner sense for truth—future ages will look back on the contemporary scientific method as it has evolved over the last several centuries as a developmental stage in the evolution of the human spirit. Inadvertently, Lord Bacon himself seems to intimate this situation: “And as for its utility, I must openly declare that this wisdom, derived mainly from the Greeks, is what might be called the boyhood of science and, as with boys, it is all prattle and no procreation. For productive of controversies, it is barren in works.” Perhaps modern science is best seen as a sort of adolescence. Perhaps one day we will “put away childish things,” no longer to look on the world from a kind of ratio-narcissistic stupor “through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.” This will be accomplished when our love for a thing becomes the organ of cognition by which we perceive it. 

On parenthood and the nature of God:

Just to finish a thought: I have started to think of parenthood as a polarised potential: material and biological consolidation on one hand and spiritual initiation on the other. What we see in it is a function of who we are. God reveals to us the nature of light by means of the sun and the nature of selfless love by means of motherhood. It’s idolatry to take the sun as God but it is an example of the genetic fallacy to take it is merely a ball of physics.

The genetic fallacy casts a veil over the divine: if God sheds light on the world, he does this by means of the sun and it is totally inconsequential whether the sun was made from and is made out of physical elements. Positivists and atheists expect people to take their arguments seriously despite that they are made out of noise and syllables.

On typeface:

It may not come as any surprise to you to hear that I am a Garamond fiend. It strikes me as an aesthetic travesty that this font is not included in the WordPress platform or in many smartphone interfaces. I would like to add something to the topography of this subject: namely, that just as the typeface serves as the medium for the message in written communication, so to speak (in an allusion to the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s famous expression “the medium is the message”), in oral communication, the tone and timbre of the voice serves an analogical function. Is it feasible to establish further articulations in this comparison? For instance, do certain tones of voice correspond with boldface or italic fonts? What about with serif and sans-serif? What are the acoustics of Garamond?

On truth in art and science

I think you are right to conceive of science as a method of discovering truth and art as a method of expressing it. Still, many people entertain the more Baconian conception of science as whatever “delivers the goods,” so to speak, irrespective of whether it confers any bona fide understanding. Owen Barfield (who considered himself, as I do as well, a disciple of both Goethe and Steiner) once referred to this kind of knowledge as “dashboard knowledge” in an allusion to the fact that a person really need not understand anything about an automobile in order to operate it. Among the most iconic expressions of this instrumentalist approach to science comes from the contemporary quantum mechanic David Mermin who, when confronted with a question about the nature of superposition, responded to the question with the dismissal of “shut up and calculate.”

You acknowledged that “the practice of art may not be as quantitative as scientific experiments.” It may be that you are conceding too much here, since nothing in principle says that science need be merely quantitative. Indeed, the exclusively quantitative methods of science are largely due to convention and historical accident and not due to any essential feature of Nature or of knowledge. We have indeed experienced something of a hegemony of quantitative science over the last centuries, but nothing says this is the only kind of science that is possible. Indeed, figures like Goethe and Humboldt have already hinted at the path that a qualitative complement might take and it is only up to us to travel those paths.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder,
c. 1563

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Charles says:

    Isaiah Berlins is a good person to read for educating oneself about knowledge.

    you wrote

    future ages will look back on the contemporary scientific method as it has evolved over the last several centuries as a developmental stage in the evolution of the human spirit

    I could suggest that science in the context of its modern history has different meanings. One could be called artistic/sprirtual and the other instrumental. Unfortunately, the instrumental became important because it forms a gestalt with the economic/material realm.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m beginning to question the value of ideas of “fortunate” and “unfortunate” in our evaluations of the “gestalt” of reality. (They do have to have to do with sheer luck. no?)

      These kinds of terms are beginning to seem as ineffectual as ideas about “good” and “evil” ( in absolutist terms, of course) and hardly beneficiary to our maturation as a species into the next “evolutionary phase” of our Being, if you will, or…of our attainment of our innate potential (or divination) of ourselves as as species, as one might choose to phrase it…or not.

      When do we get from the abstract to the real? That would be my question.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Charles says:

    I appreciate your thought I’m beginning to question the value of ideas of “fortunate” and “unfortunate” Abstract and real? I don’t understand your question.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. FIAT LUX says:

    Reblogged this on FIAT LUX.

    Liked by 1 person

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