REGARDING A NEW HUMANISM

Salvador Pániker [7.3.07]
Topic:

The true "sacred texts" of the western tradition have been for centuries, those of the great authors. Plato and Aristotle, Dante and Shakespeare. But also Victoria, Bach, Handel, Beethoven. And Giotto, Fra Angelico, Rembrandt. And Archimedes, Pascal, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Heisenberg. And Paul Celan and Bela Bartok. Etcetera. All of them are "sacred authors." Canonical. Quantum physics is no less-inspired a monument than the Bible. Nor less ambiguous.

REGARDING A NEW HUMANISM 
By Salvador Pániker
Translation by Karen Phillips

Salvador Pániker is a Spanish philosopher and writer.

Salvador Pániker's Edge Bio Page


REGARDING A NEW HUMANISM

In 1959, C. P. Snow gave a famous lecture at Cambridge entitled "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution", lamenting the academic and professional scission between the field of science and that of letters. In 1991, the literary agent John Brockman popularized the concept of the third culture, to refer to the dawning of the scientist-writer, and hence, the birth of a new humanism. A humanism no longer bound to the classical sense of the term, but instead a new hybridization between the sciences and the humanities.

As far as philosophy is concerned, this new humanism should be aware of not only the latest in sciences, but also to as many tendencies of contemporary thought as is possible. Meaning that philosophy should not remain shut up in a professional academic department, but instead participate in an interdisciplinary intersection, "in conversation"—as the recently disappeared Richard Rorty would say—with all the other sciences. Philosophy needs to trace the maps of reality. The philosopher is, in the words of Plato, "he who possesses a vision of the whole (synoptikos)," in such, he who organizes that which is most relevant of the "stored information" (culture) and sketches out the new world views (provisional, but coherent). Moreover, the initial intuition of the analytic philosophers—who were the first to point out the importance of avoiding the traps set by language—should not be thrown out altogether.

I believe, therefore, that a new humanism should adopt certain linguistic reforms.  Take, for example, the extent to which we are today still conditioned by the old Aristotelian construct of subject, verb and predicate, which also forms the Cartesian model of subject-object cognition. This convention is responsible—and has been denounced by Buddha and David Hume alike—for committing the fallacy of believing in the mind's existence when the only thing we can be certain of is the existence of mental acts.

In fact, what occurs in the philosophical genre is that words must transmit concepts, leaving little room for the flowers of rhetoric. In philosophy, it is very difficult to escape from a determined grammatical mode. Martin Heidegger has already explained that he had to give up writing the second part of Being and Time because of the inadequacy of the language of metaphysics which always identifies a being with the event of being, forgetting the ontological difference. Today, when philosophy tends to blend with literature, what other recourse to we have? Gregory Bateson used to say that we must adapt to a new form of thinking which substitutes objects with relationships. But substituting objects with relationships is telling stories. In such, Bateson is inviting us to tell stories.

Still, while a "linguistic turn" may have taken place, our syntactic habits have changed very little. And I'm only referring to that which can be understood. The previously-cited Heidegger, in his second period, claimed poetry—of whose supreme example would be Hölderlin—as a model for non-objectifying language, irreducible to a simple instrument of information. Unfortunately, Heidegger managed to so inebriate himself in the "poetic darkness" that he became hard to follow. With respect to the formal languages used for the hard sciences, these are ultimately only accessible to a small group of specialists. And so, to give an example, while in their day learned folk could still digest Newton's theory of gravity and even Einstein's theory of relativity (although with less ease—the constancy of the speed of light is strictly counterintuitive); who today would be able to follow the devilish mathematic complexity of superstring theory?

This said, we're headed down a path I believe to be inevitable. There, at the margins of the language one uses, we are called to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of intuition, common sense and other deceits of this nature.

On the other hand, why must reality be completely unintelligible? To start, Gödel's theorem impugns the very notion of a complete theory of nature: any system of axioms that are even somewhat complex raises questions that the axioms themselves cannot answer. On the other hand, the Theory of Evoltuion confirms our obscurity. Nothing obliges us to think that the world must be completely intelligible. At least for us thinking simians. At least in relation to that which we thinking simians understand by intelligibility.

To sum up. A new humanism should begin with a modesty cure, perhaps by abjuring the very arrogant concept of humanism, which places the human animal as the central reference point for all of existence. A new humanism, compatible with the sensitivity of metaphysics, cannot turn its back on science. Naturally, it's not a question of falling into the pseudoscientific obscurantism which Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont denounced in their well-known book, Intellectual Imposters. There's no need to use scientific jargon when it doesn't pertain. Nor is there cause to fall into radical epistemological relativism (which can result from a poor digestion of works by Kuhn and Feyerabend), nor to believe science to be mere narrative or nothing but social construct. Nor should we look for an absurd synthesis between Science and Mysticism. Humanism's received task is more deferential toward the autonomy of science: To truly understand our most fundamental conditionings; to ensure that scientific paradigms truly fertilize philosophical and even literary discourse.

The fact of the matter is that culture in its entirety exists in a permanent state of flux and renewal. Its renewal is born from the cross-fertilization of individual disciplines. Today one can even elaborate on a new idea taken from a "sacred text", avoiding a return to the old dried-out sources. For example, is it possible that one day His Holiness the Pope of the Catholic Church will write something truly inspired, something real, without the dreadful mannerisms of official documents? It doesn't seem likely, nor is it necessary. The true "sacred texts" of the western tradition have been for centuries, those of the great authors. Plato and Aristotle, Dante and Shakespeare. But also Victoria, Bach, Handel, Beethoven. And Giotto, Fra Angelico, Rembrandt. And Archimedes, Pascal, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Heisenberg. And Paul Celan and Bela Bartok. Etcetera. All of them are "sacred authors." Canonical. Quantum physics is no less-inspired a monument than the Bible. Nor less ambiguous. The scientist Arthur I. Miller writes: "As a great work of literature, quantum theory is open to a multitude of interpretations."

Indeed, those who pit science against sacred texts or science against art do so in error. Respective boundaries of autonomy aside, everything forms a part of the same prodigious struggle. The pursuit of the real which, in a sense, is the also the pursuit of the absolute. The absolute that is intuited, though it remains inaccessible. A fusion of fields as was seen in the Renaissance is certainly no longer possible; the mountain of specialization has grown too high. However, one might demand that the different fields of knowledge communicate with one another and without undermining each other. This is, in essence, that which Edgar Morin has called "transdisciplinarity," that which, without attempting a unifying principal for all fields of knowledge (which would also be reductionism), aspires to a communication between the disciplines based on complex thought. It's not all physics, nor all biology, nor all sociology, nor all anthropology; but it is worth connecting such fields cybernetically.

Encycopedism? In modern terms, a physical/ biological/ social/ anthropological feedback loop charged with bringing the big questions on the human condition up to speed while insisting that permeability between sciences, arts and letters becomes a hallmark of our times.

[First published in the Opinion page of El Pais, February 18, 2007.]