Tuesday, January 27, 2004

The Amorous Flea

Unless, as certain Gnostics believe, individual souls are exiles on this plane of reality, the task of the philosopher is to provide a venue in which the universe can come to consciousness of itself. This is not so nutty as it may sound and does not quite amount to saying, “I, Hegel, am God.” Indeed, it is very difficult to conceptualize what’s going on in any other way. Absent literal angels or something like them, who else is going to figure things out around here? And what is there to figure out besides what’s here?

All this said, there are two objections to this picture, one comic and answerable and one far more serious and perhaps unanswerable. The comic objection raises a laugh at the notion that the acme of reality, thought thinking itself, occurs in a handful of college professors and similar folks who had a hard time getting dates in high school. And it is funny to think that the incarnate world spirit is located a couple of feet above some academic ass. But if it is, it is. Anyhow, human civilization itself began with the discovery that you make better stone tools by discarding the core and focusing on the flakes. Maybe the flakes are still what matters.

The serious objection to the Sage as Absolute Spirit scheme is rather different. The individual thinker may just not be the true locus of the world’s knowledge of itself. After all, veridical knowledge about the world seems to be best exemplified by the sciences, which are complex social and economic institutions that operate above and beyond the wishes and comprehension of individuals. One need not claim that it is impossible for individuals to understand a good deal of what the sciences discover or even try to discount the role that very clever people have in fact played in the development of the sciences to recognize that the process that generates the results transcends individuals in an essential way. Certain individuals may have a fuller and deeper understanding of Nature than others but such personal characteristics, however valuable and admirable in themselves, are irrelevant to the validity of the results and may not even have played much of a role in accelerating the pace of discovery. If the figure of the genius really is important to the operation of the sciences, it’s mostly for public relations purposes. An Einstein or a Feynman is mighty helpful for purposes of getting financing, but their discoveries were inevitable granted the state of play of the sciences of their time.

As a recovering Hegelian might phrase it, perhaps Objective Spirit is as good as it gets, i.e. maybe the fullest, most adequate self-awareness is actually a kind of unconscious social process in relation to which human awareness plays at most an instrumental role. The individual mind can only aspire to be a flea in the universal brothel, well situated to witness the most interesting action, but not the protagonist of the piece.

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