Thursday, June 12, 2003

Separating Out

Ian Hacking remarks in one of the essays in his Historical Ontology that the “renaissance medical, alchemical, and astrological doctrines of resemblance and simultude are well nigh incomprehensible. One does not find our modern notions of evidence deployed in these arcane pursuits.” That’s not exactly wrong, but only if the “our” in “our modern notions” is defined narrowly enough. In fact a great many people, even people who don’t live in Taos, still practice these “arcane pursuits” as evidenced by the large Metaphysics sections in bookstores. Indeed, if folks addicted to resemblence and simultude don’t constitute an actual majority of the population, it’s only because so many of the rest haven’t got as far as Paracelsus. The Medieval lies far ahead of most of mankind, especially in America where, even for elites, the gains of the Enlightenment were mostly given back in the succeeding Enmerdement, so that a nation founded by cosmopolitan philosophers is now ruled by superstitious dullards.

What we (but which we?) count as general cultural advance is more often just a separating out of a tiny self-conscious minority who only think they typify the others. Just as the world of living things started out as a bunch of bacteria and mostly remains a bunch of bacteria after three and a half billion years of evolution, intellectual progress hasn’t moved the average very much either. Well-educated people are often upbraided for their sense of superiority, but in my experience they tend to offend more often by giving their fellow man too much credit than too little. They are certainly ignorant about ignorance, mistakenly taking their idea of the human mean from the highly untypical sample of people with whom they themselves interact. Indeed, with this background, encountering a truly typical human being can be quite a shock. Nothing is quite so painful as listening to an honorable, good-natured biologist getting destroyed in a pubic debate over Darwinism because his cynical opponent has a much more realistic understanding of the mentality of a lay audience whose common sense is decidedly prescientific and utterly lacking in “our modern notions of evidence.”

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