Tuesday 1 September 2009

REVIEW: Re-Enchanting the World (2009)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVII No. 2

Karl-Marx-Hof, one of the best-known Gemeindebauten in Vienna,

Re-enchanting the world

By Martin Cohen

'The fate of our times is characterised by the rationalisation and intellectualisation and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world'
Or so Max Weber declared in 1917, Joshua Landy and Michael Saler remind us, in introducing this engaging 'smorgasbord' of a book, which ranges freely from environmentalism and architecture on one hand to Gnosticism and poetry on the other. That's quite a stretch, but then, as the editors explain, the idea behind the book is that there are "a variety of secular and conscious strategies for re-enchantment, held together by their common aim of filling a God-shaped void."

In their view, disenchantment is easier claimed than achieved. They point out that both Marx (who conjures with the spectre of capitalism, for example) and Nietzsche's writings, abound with metaphors and similes of enchantment. Landy and Saler see a "single, coruscating work' - the Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) by Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno, as epitomising the view of modernity as inherently irrational. Worse, as Freud put it in Civilisation and its Discontents (1930), the fear that the repressive cultural forces of modernity in combination with the advances in science and technology must eventually result in one final irrational act - humankind's self-destruction.

Mind you (and the book veers from the serious to the trivial freely), when Western intellectuals speak of disenchantment today, they often have in mind a less apocalyptic state of affairs, and point merely at a "gradual decline in mystery".
Little by little , physics has extended its reach into more and more areas previously occupied by metaphysics, as apparently inexplicable natural phenomena have found themselves susceptible, one by one, to strictly worldly explanations. Days of darkness [eclipses, presumably - ed.] mean nothing more than that the moon is in the way of the sun. Rainbows are neither visitations from Iris or reminders of a covenant, but merely the result of a prismatic refraction. And if a given mental illness can be cured by medication, then it is more likely to be an instance of a chemical imbalance than one of diabolic possession. 
Perhaps this is because, as Linda Simon, in the second essay in the book, says, quoting William James:
[T]o understand life by concepts is to arrest its movement, cutting it up into bits as if with scissors, and immobilising these in our logical herbarium where, comparing them as dried specimens, we can ascertain which of them statically includes or excludes which other. James himself later embraced experiments in psychic phenomena declaring that having experienced first hand the abilities of one medium in particular, that for him science now lay "in the dust'.
Not so for the authors here. Many of the essays claim (rather countervailingly) that modern science can also 'restore mystery' to the world. Andrea Nightingale unconvincingly offers that: "Science... becomes, paradoxically enough, the single most powerful generator of the marvellous." Another dubious search for re-enchantment is surely Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht's survey of spectator sports where he finds "secular epiphanies' in the semi-sacred space of the stadium. However, this is not to say that the essay is not thought provoking in a sociological sense.

In many ways, Nightingale's essay, the first one in the volume, is also one of the best. After surveying the history of disenchantment, from Augustine who spoke of Christians being 'homeless' on Earth, to Descartes 's and Francis Bacon who both denigrate wonder as 'broken knowledge' ("contemplation broken off, or losing itself" in Bacon's phrase) and finally on to Weber and Heidegger, she concentrates on two images- the idea that ecology is the correct ordering of the place in which we dwell, and that science and technology essentially try to create an artificial dwelling that is some distance from our natural home - "a home away from home". Nightingale offers instead a different approach using the example of Thoreau's retreat to a shed in the woods.

But the problem, of course, is more than physical. As she points out, Augustine also speaks of us being 'distended' in time - simultaneously pulled into the past (memoria) and in to the future (expectatio). William James summarised the existential aspects of this (as a separate essay notes) by saying "What we are is always lined up with the notion of what we might be, or might have been". But Augustine describes his experience as of being 'scattered in time' - "scattered, because we are never stable, never in one temporal or bodily place". Only the afterlife, outside time, offers a permanent solution. Prior to this, we may, temporarily, be able to find escape through the act of focussing our attention on God. Augustine puts it like this, in his characteristically dismal way:
When I am sitting at home, a lizard catching lies or a spider entrapping them as they rush into its web often fascinates me.... When my heart becomes the receptacle of distractions of this nature and the container for a mass of empty thoughts, then too my prayers are often interrupted and distracted. 
It is unlikely that Augustine would have been sympathetic to Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht's survey of spectator sports! But Augustine 's own rejection of nature is "hardly appealing, offering no viable mode of dwelling responsibly on earth", says Nightingale.

Nor to her are Descartes' prejudices any more acceptable. In the Discourse on Method, Descartes compares his strategy for thinking with that of a builder of a house saying:

... one of the first [ideas] that occurred to me was that there is less perfection in a work produced by several persons than in one produced by as single hand. Thus we notice that buildings conceived and completed by a single architect ae usually more beautiful and better planned than those remodelled by several person using ancient walls of various vintages along with new ones.

Descartes hypocritically then goes on to extend his, already rather dubious, metaphor to the fields of science and philosophy, finding in both a hodgepodge of conclusions. He warns: "It is true that we never tear down all the houses in a city just to rebuild them in a different way and to make the streets more beautiful; but we do see that individual owners often have theirs torn down and rebuilt."

And Descartes soon takes on the remodelling of more than just his 'own house' , deciding that the whole of nature is "essentially a machine that has no life or agency", as Nightingale puts it. Descartes' new 'dwelling' excludes animals to be left howling outside. Worse still, "Even when animals try to make themselves heard, Descartes just hears bells and whistles instead of cries of pain."

A fascinating contrast with Thoreau 200 years later. Thoreau, who delights in comparisons between man and nature! Curiously the minutiae of the natural world that Augustine particularly despises is exactly that which Thoreau praises.
What is man but a mass of thawing clay? The ball of the human finger is but a drop congealed. The fingers and toes flow to their extent from the thawing mass of the body... is not the hand a spreading palm leaf with its lobes and veins? The ear may be regarded fancifully as a lichen on the side of the head The nose is a manifest congealed drop or stalactite. 
In another well-known passage too, Thoreau compares the philosopher to "a strong and beautiful bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple wood, which had stood in a farmer's kitchen for sixty years... [hatched] from an egg deposited in the living tree many years earlier still."

Nightingale finds Thoreau 'rococo', which he is, and Descartes contradictory and incoherent, which he is too. She sees Descartes as praising science and its powers on one hand, and claiming the pre-eminence of a non-material world of mind on the other. Given the origin of the Discourse (as a collection of diverse scientific papers collected over some years and hastily reassembled under the famous philosophical introduction) this should perhaps have been less surprising. But Nightingale is surely right to re-emphasise Descartes' role in the disenchantment of the world:
First, the belief in the essential superiority of human over non-human beings. Second the claim that this superiority gives humans the right to dominate nature. Certainly the majority of people in the West do not believe that we have ethical responsibilities towards animals (let alone plants, rivers, etc.) And, while most people would deny that animals are machines (as Descartes claimed) we nonetheless treat our machines with more consideration than the animals that feed us. 
Above all, Nightingale says, we reflect 'Cartesian thinking' in our aspiration to become independent from nature and in our quest to make death 'optional'. "These beliefs and ideologies justify our hostile assaults on the earth, and our rejection of nature as the basis of human dwelling."

Other essays dwell rather too long on intellectual trivia, sprinkled with numerous references to Heidegger (whose omnipresence, both in this essay and in the volume generally seems to have more to do with intellectual fashion than any argumentative purpose), but Michael Saler's essay on 'Waste Lands and Silly Valleys: Wittgenstein, Mass-Culture and Re-Enchantnment' offers some refreshing insights into Wittgenstein, including his love-affair with American detective pulp fiction, which he described, correctly, as having a higher philosophical value than much that passes for philosophical debate.
How people could read Mind if they could read Street & Smith beats me. If philosophy has anything to do with wisdom, there's certainly not a grain of truth in Mind, and quite often a grain in the detective stories. 
So wrote Wittgenstein in a letter to his friend Noel Malcolm, who supplied his addiction from the United States. Indeed, there is a shift in Wittgenstein from the early search for 'logical facts' and the elevation of reason to the later explorations of the indeterminacy of meaning and the praising of the playfulness and plain 'silliness' of language. Detective Fiction really was more valuable than academic prose - more playful and more able to "be 'silly' and experiment". Or as Wittgenstein put it:
What I give is the morphology of the expression. I show that is has kinds of uses of which you had not dreamed. In philosophy one feels forced to look at a concept in a certain way. What I do is suggest , or even invent, other ways of looking at it Thus your mental cramp is relieved... 
Joshua Landy and Michael Saler have surely tried something of the same approach here. Even so, their quest for re-enchantment is founded upon the idea that "there is a genuine urgency, an existential pathos" about a disenchanted world, and that the world needs to be re-enchanted. Human flourishing requires it, and this time it must be "with dignity, which is to say in concord with secular rationality, in full awareness of pluralism and contingency."

That is a tall order, but then, this is rightly an ambitious book.
The Philosopher's verdict: secular epiphany

The Re-Enchantment of the World

Secular Magic in a Rational Age
Edited by Joshua Landy and Michael Saler
Stanford University Press, 2009 pp 387 ISBN 0-8047-5299-2 hb

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