Sunday, 17 February 2008

The Age of Enlightenment -- Turning Back the Clock

I've always been rather intrigued by the Enlightenment; I idolise people like David Hume and Sir Isaac Newton. Aristotle was a clever chap but his understanding was of his time. Theology grew as a means of adapting Aristotle to fit with Christian teaching, a job completed almost entirely by Thomas Aquinas and from that point on to challenge Aristotle was to challenge the church and those that did faced sever consequences -- one doesn't have to look much further that Galileo Galilee for evidence. Isaac Newton changed all of this, his empirical approach to understanding meant that knowledge could only be attained by experiment and with this science advanced and so came about the industrial revolution and it seems that we haven't looked back since...but I'm not so sure.

One of the recently unearthed and translated novels from the great author Alexandre Dumas is called 'One Thousand and One Ghosts'. Written at the height of the 1848 revolution it is a dark tale in which a group of diverse companions sit at dinner and tell what are ostensibly ghost stories. The guillotine is a good symbol of the Enlightenment, the scientifically designed, horrifically efficient machine for death. It represented all our new understanding of anatomy -- understanding that was hard to come by before the enlightenment as dissection was prohibited by church doctrine and as such inscribed into law. Dumas' ghost stories represent an adverse reaction to the Enlightenment, a return to spirituality and mysticism as an antidote to the science that brought about the reign of terror.

Richard Dawkins seems to be the champion of the new movement back to the enlightenment. I respect many of his beliefs; I am an atheist, I think astrology is a pile of nonsense, that psychics pray of the desperate hopes of the bereaved and so on and so forth but what he represents is something echoed around many universities -- that disciplines can only survive if they meet these 'scientific criteria'. This seems to signal the death-knell for many social sciences that cannot conform, my cherished subject of semiotics being one thereof.

Science does not have all the answers and Richard Dawkins would never claim that it does; it is a vehicle for attaining 'knowledge' and it presents a shifting understanding that adapts with new evidence and understanding but it never presents our full picture of culture or the human experience. As Dawkins states, we do have an amazing ability to find patterns in the random nature of universe, it's almost all we can do to separate our existence from that of the animals we eat or the insects we tread on it's the basis upon which we search for and 'find' meaning in life -- the question remains would you want a life without meaning. Perhaps ignorance can be bliss.


dwlt said...

I think the idea that humans are "here" for something is kind of misguided - we're not here for something any more than badgers are. So on that basis, it's up to the individual to figure out what life means to them and what they want their life to mean.

That sounded more profound in my head, but I think you'll see what I'm getting at! Possibly. It's also possible I'm too tired.

Paolo said...

I quite agree, my good man. Much of spirituality is about ascribing purpose and intent where they see order in chaos. How better a way to justify human excess than to claim to be made in the image of an august and all powerful being and to say that we exist because he deems it so.

There is little solace to be had in the thought that life exists because we're the on planet in millions that happens to within the narrow remit for sustaining it and those long odds only make many believe even more that it is no accident.

Sara Andrews said...

Thanks for the heads-up on the Dumas book which I had previously not heard of. I love Dumas.

Paolo said...

It is a great book, I was quite disappointed when it ended because I was ready for more. A similar book is called 'The Castle of Crossed Destinies' by Italo Calvino except that in his story his narrators cannot talk and construct their narrative by the arrangement of tarot cards. I think Calvino is possibly the only author who could get away without using words as a narrative device in literature.


Alisa said...

It might very well mean the death of the US, the theocracy of the new world order. Fine by me!

Why do you think semiotics does not fit the criteria you're writing about? I always understood it as being the study of how our brain interprets the world? Perhaps not in the philosophical sense that it is often referred to as, but I think it can work in the scientific category, just in a different way. Am i getting it wrong here?

Paolo said...

Linguistics is probably the most scientific of the social sciences but semiotics doesn't especially fit easily into that heading. Essentially semiotics is the study of signs and a sign is something, anything, that can 'represent' something else.

Umberto Eco was convinced that there would be an overarching theory of semiotics that would essentially be a theory of everything but he soon came to realise that it was the multi-disciplinary nature of semiotics made it impossible to study without being an expert on everything.

The subject is dying though and a lot of the key texts in the subject are falling out of print. In a lot of academic circles it is considered nothing but a pretentious technique of literary criticism. Semiotics essentially sells itself as a science of culture but it has been reduced to a method of critical investigation and its proponents are themselves criticised for producing nothing quantifiable.