The biophobia discussed in last week’s post makes a useful example of the way that toxic ideas can have the same kind of impact on a society as toxic waste of a more material kind. This shouldn’t be a new point to any regular reader of this blog; I’ve commented in these essays rather more than once that the crisis of our age is not just a function of depleted resources and the buildup of pollutants in the biosphere, important as these details are. To a far more important degree, it’s a matter of depleted imaginations and the buildup of dysfunctional ideas in the collective consciousness of our time.
Most of the rising spiral of problems we face as the industrial age approaches its end could have been prevented with a little foresight and forbearance, and even now—when most of the opportunities to avoid a really messy future have long since gone whistling down the wind—there’s still much that could be done to mitigate the worst consequences of the decline and fall of the industrial age and pass on the best achievements of the last few centuries to our descendants. Of the things that could be done to make the future less miserable than it will otherwise be, though, very few are actually being done, and those have received what effort they have only because scattered individuals and small groups out on the fringes of contemporary industrial society are putting their own time and resources into the task.
Meanwhile the billions of dollars, the vast public relations campaigns, and the lavishly supplied and funded institutional networks that could do these same things on a much larger scale are by and large devoted to projects that are simply going to make things worse. That’s the bitter irony of our age and, more broadly, of every civilization in its failing years. No society has to be dragged kicking and screaming down the slope of decline and fall; one and all, they take that slope at a run, yelling in triumph, utterly convinced that the road to imminent ruin will lead them to paradise on Earth.
That’s one of the ways that the universe likes to blindside believers in a purely materialist interpretation of history. Modern industrial society differs in a galaxy of ways from the societies that preceded it into history’s compost heap, and it’s easy enough—especially in a society obsessed with the belief in its superiority to every other civilization in history—to jump from the fact of those differences to the conviction that modern industrial society must have a unique fate: uniquely glorious, uniquely horrible, or some combination of the two, nobody seems to care much as long as it’s unique. Then the most modern industrial social and economic machinery gets put to work in the service of stupidities that were old before the pyramids were built, because human beings rather than machinery make the decisions, and the motives that drive human behavior don’t actually change that much from one millennium to the next.
What does change from millennium to millennium, and across much shorter eras as well, are the ideas and beliefs built atop the foundation provided by the motivations just mentioned. One of the historians whose work has been central to this blog’s project, Oswald Spengler, had much to say about the way that different high cultures came to understand the world in such dramatically different ways. He pointed out that the most basic conceptions about reality vary from one culture to another. Modern Western thinkers can’t even begin to understand the world, for example, without the conception of infinite empty space; to the thinkers of Greek and Roman times, by contrast, infinity and empty space were logical impossibilities, and the cosmos was—had to be—a single material mass.
Still, there’s another dimension to the way thoughts and beliefs change over time, and it takes place within the historical trajectory of what Spengler called a culture and his great rival Arnold Toynbee called a civilization. This is the dimension that we recall, however dimly, when we speak of the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason. Since these same ages recur in the life of every high culture, we might more usefully speak of ages of faith and ages of reason in the plural; we might also want to discuss a third set of ages, to which I gave a suggestive name in a post a while back, that succeed ages of reason in much the same way that the latter supplant ages of faith.
Now of course the transition between ages of faith and ages of reason carries a heavy load of self-serving cant these days. The rhetoric of the civil religion of progress presupposes that every human being who lived before the scientific revolution was basically just plain stupid, since otherwise they would have gotten around to noticing centuries ago that modern atheism and scientific materialism are the only reasonable explanations of the cosmos. Thus a great deal of effort has been expended over the years on creative attempts to explain why nobody before 1650 or so realized that everything they believed about the cosmos was so obviously wrong.
A more useful perspective comes out of the work of Giambattista Vico, the modern Western world’s first great theorist of historical cycles. Vico’s 1744 opus Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations—for obvious reasons, the title normally gets cut down nowadays to The New Science—focuses on what he called “the course the nations run,” the trajectory that leads a new civilization up out of one dark age and eventually back down into the next. Vico wrote in an intellectual tradition that’s all but extinct these days, the tradition of Renaissance humanism, saturated in ancient Greek and Roman literature and wholly at ease in the nearly forgotten worlds of mythological and allegorical thinking. Even at the time, his book was considered difficult by most readers, and it’s far more opaque today than it was then, but the core ideas Vico was trying to communicate are worth teasing out of his convoluted prose.
One useful way into those ideas is to start where Vico did, with the history of law. It’s a curious regularity in legal history that law codes start out in dark age settings as lists of specific punishments for specific crimes—“if a man steal a loaf of bread, let him be given twelve blows with a birch stick”—without a trace of legal theory or even generalization. Later, all the different kinds of stealing get lumped together as the crime of theft, and the punishment assigned to it usually comes to depend at least in part on the abstract value of what’s stolen. Eventually laws are ordered and systematized, a theory of law emerges, and great legal codes are issued providing broad general principles from which jurists extract rulings for specific cases. By that time, the civilization that created the legal code is usually stumbling toward its end, and its fall is the end of the road for its highly abstract legal system; when the rubble stops bouncing, the law codes of the first generation of successor states go right back to lists of specific punishments for specific crimes. As Vico pointed out, the oldest form of Roman law, the Twelve Tables, and the barbarian law codes that emerged after Rome’s fall were equally concrete and unsystematic, even though the legal system that rose and fell between them was one of history’s great examples of legal systematization and abstraction.
What caught Vico’s attention is that the same process appears in a galaxy of other human institutions and activities. Languages emerge in dark age conditions with vocabularies rich in concrete, sensuous words and very poor in abstractions, and and transform those concrete words into broader, more general terms over time—how many people remember that “understand” used to mean to stand under, in the sense of getting in underneath to see how something works? Political systems start with the intensely personal and concrete feudal bonds between liege lord and vassal, and then shift gradually toward ever more abstract and systematic notions of citizenship. Vico barely mentioned economics in his book, but it’s a prime example: look at the way that wealth in a dark age society means land, grain, and lumps of gold, which get replaced first by coinage, then by paper money, then by various kinds of paper that can be exchanged for paper money, and eventually by the electronic hallucinations that count as wealth today.
What’s behind these changes is a shift in the way that thinking is done, and it’s helpful in this regard to go a little deeper than Vico himself did, and remember that the word “thinking” can refer to at least three different kinds of mental activity. The first is so pervasive and so automatic that most people only notice it in unusual situations—when you wake up in the dark in an unfamiliar room, for example, and it takes several seconds for the vague looming shapes around you to turn into furniture. Your mind has to turn the input of your senses into a world of recognizable objects. It does this all the time, though you don’t usually notice the process; the world you experience around you is literally being assembled by your mind moment by moment. We can borrow a term from Owen Barfield for the kind of thinking that does this, and call it figuration.
Figuration’s a more complex process than most people realize. If you look at the optical illusion shown below, you can watch that process at work: your mind tries to make sense of the shapes on the screen, and flops back and forth between the available options. If you look at an inkblot from the Rohrshach test and see two bats having a romantic interlude, that’s figuration, too, and it reveals one of the things that happens when figuration gets beyond the basics: it starts to tell stories. Listen to children who aren’t yet old enough to tackle logical reasoning, especially when they don’t know you’re listening, and you’ll often hear figuration in full roar: everything becomes part of a story, which may not make any sense at all from a logical perspective, but connects everything together in a single narrative that makes its own kind of sense of the world of experience.
It’s when children, or for that matter adults, start to compare figurations to each other that a second kind of thinking comes into play, which we can call abstraction. You have this figuration over here, which combines the sensations of brown, furry, movement, barking, and much more into a single object; you have that one over there, which includes most of the same sensations in a different place into a different object; from these figurations, you abstract the common features and give the sum of those features a name, “dog.” That’s abstraction. The child who calls every four-legged animal “goggie” has just started to grasp abstraction, and does it in the usual way, starting from the largest and broadest abstract categories and narrowing down from there. As she becomes more experienced at it, she’ll learn to relabel that abstraction “animal,” or even “quadruped,” while a cascade of nested categories allows her to grasp that Milo and Maru are both animals, but one is a dog and the other a cat.
Just as figuration allowed to run free starts to tell stories, abstraction allowed the same liberty starts to construct theories. A child who’s old enough to abstract but hasn’t yet passed to the third kind of thinking is a great example. Ask her to speculate about why something happens, and you’ll get a theory instead of a story—the difference is that, where a story simply flows from event to event, a theory tries to make sense of the things that happen by fitting them into abstract categories and making deductions on that basis. The categories may be inappropriately broad, narrow, or straight out of left field, and the deductions may be whimsical or just plain weird, but it’s from such tentative beginnings that logic and science gradually emerge in individuals and societies alike.
Figuration, then, assembles a world out of fragments of present and remembered sensation. Abstraction takes these figurations and sorts them into categories, then tries to relate the categories to one another. It’s when the life of abstraction becomes richly developed enough that there emerges a third kind of thinking, which we can call reflection. Reflection is thinking about thinking: stepping outside the world constructed by figuration to think about how figurations are created from raw sensation, stepping outside the cascading categories created by abstraction to think about where those categories came from and how well or poorly they fit the sensations and figurations they’re meant to categorize. Where figuration tells stories and abstraction creates theories, reflection can lead in several directions. Done capably, it yields wisdom; done clumsily, it plunges into self-referential tailchasing; pushed too far, it can all too easily end in madness.
Apply these three modes of thinking to the historical trajectory of any civilization and the parallels are hard to miss. Figuration dominates the centuries of a society’s emergence and early growth; language, law, and the other phenomena mentioned above focus on specific examples or, as we might as well say, specific figurations. The most common form of intellectual endeavor in such times is storytelling—it’s not an accident that the great epics of our species, and the vast majority of its mythologies, come out of the early stages of high cultures. If the logical method of a previous civilization has been preserved, which has been true often enough in recent millennia, it exists in a social bubble, cultivated by a handful of intellectuals but basically irrelevant to the conduct of affairs. Religion dominates cultural life, and feudalism or some very close equivalent dominates the political sphere.
It’s usually around the time that feudalism is replaced by some other system of government that the age of faith gives way to the first stirrings of an age of reason or, in the terms used here, abstraction takes center stage away from figuration. At first, the new abstraction sets itself the problem of figuring out what religious myths really mean, but since those narratives don’t “mean” anything in an abstract sense—they’re ways of assembling experience into stories the mind can grasp, not theories based on internally consistent categorization and logic—the myths eventually get denounced as a pack of lies, and the focus shifts to creating rational theories about the universe. Epic poetry and mythology give way to literature, religion loses ground to secular scholarship such as classical philosophy or modern science, and written constitutions and law codes replace feudal custom.
Partisans of abstraction always like to portray these shifts as the triumph of reason over superstition, but there’s another side to the story. Every abstraction is a simplification of reality, and the further you go up the ladder of abstractions, the more certain it becomes that the resulting concepts will fail to match up to the complexities of actual existence. Nor is abstraction as immune as its practitioners like to think to the influences of half-remembered religious narratives or the subterranean pressures of ordinary self interest—it’s utterly standard, for example, for the professional thinkers of an age of reason to prove with exquisite logic that whatever pays their salaries is highly reasonable and whatever threatens their status is superstitious nonsense. The result is that what starts out proclaiming itself as an age of reason normally turns into an age of unreason, dominated by a set of closely argued, utterly consistent, universally accepted rational beliefs whose only flaw is that they fail to explain the most critical aspects of what’s happening out there in the real world.
In case you haven’t noticed, dear reader, that’s more or less where we are today. It’s not merely that the government of every major industrial nation is trying to achieve economic growth by following policies that are supposed to bring growth in theory, but have never once done so in practice; it’s not merely that the populace of every major industrial society eagerly forgets all the lessons of each speculative bubble and bust as soon as the next one comes along, and makes all the same mistakes with the same dismal results as the previous time; it’s not even that allegedly sane and sensible people have somehow managed to convince themselves that limitless supplies of fossil fuels can somehow be extracted at ever-increasing rates from the insides of a finite planet: it’s that only a handful of people out on the furthest fringes of contemporary culture ever notice that there’s anything at all odd about these stunningly self-defeating patterns of behavior.
It’s at this stage of history that reflection becomes necessary. It’s only by thinking about thinking, by learning to pay attention to the way we transform the raw data of the senses into figurations and abstractions, that it becomes possible to notice what’s being excluded from awareness in the course of turning sensation into figurations and sorting out figurations into cascading levels of abstraction. Yes, that’s part of the project of this blog—to reflect on how we as a society got in the habit of thinking the things we think, and how well or poorly that thinking relates to the world we’re actually encountering.
It’s at this same stage of history, though, that reflection also becomes a lethal liability, because wisdom is not the only possible outcome of reflection. Vico points out that there’s a barbarism of reflection that comes at the end of a civilization’s life cycle, parallel to the barbarism of sensation that comes at the beginning—and also ancestral to it. Reflection is a solvent; skillfully handled, it dissolves abstractions and figurations that obscure more than they reveal, so that less counterproductive ways of assembling raw sensation into meaningful patterns can be pursued; run riot, it makes every abstraction and every figuration as arbitrary and meaningless as any other, until the collective conversation about what’s real and what matters dissolves in a cacophony of voices speaking past one another.