Wednesday, June 25, 2014

“The Class,” an ‘Abstract’ Writeup - Hour 1

1. How we got to 1859? In order to start in 1859, we have to start in 1666, cultural history’s last ‘miracle year’ when the ground on which human thought grew shifted unrecognizably. It was the year Moliere premiered ‘The Misanthrope,’ which reached whole new levels of what satirists could be free to say directly to their audiences, Vermeer completed ‘The Art of Painting,’ which gave painting a whole new level of realism, and the year Louis XIV commissioned the French Academy of Sciences. But most importantly, it’s the year of London’s Great Fire which reduced the city to rubble, and the year Isaac Newton began forming the theories of Universal Gravitation.

1 A. Newton explains the Universe - The myth of Newton’s genius is that the ‘apple fell from the tree.’ But, in my humble opinion, it is more likely that ‘The Great Fire’ stirred his desire for an explanation. Born as he was in 1642, Newton would have already lived through two civil wars, the execution of a divinely-anointed King, a theocratic dictatorship of Puritans, and a plague that wiped out 100,000 Londoners. But even through all that, London, the ‘celestial city,’ the greatest edifice to the Glory of God an Englishman would ever see in his lifetime, still stood. It’s more likely that so many disturbances to the established order of things - dictated by God - made Newton, a self-described Christian heretic, think differently about the way which God constructed the universe.  

1 B. Newton explains Copernicus and Kepler - Copernicus posited, correctly, that the Earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around. His correctness was later fundamentally demonstrated by Galileo. Kepler demonstrated, conclusively even if not widely accepted, that the Earth revolved not in a circle but in eliptical form, and gained speed the closer it came to the Sun. Newton showed that it was all possible due to universal gravitation - any two bodies in the universe attract one another with a force directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Thanks to Newton, we were definitively out of the Dark Ages - our knowledge of astronomy, physics, optics, and mathematics, increased exponentially, which eventually seeped into our knowledge about how to create new technology.

1 C. Vico explains Newton - If Newton founded modern physics, then Vico founded the modern study of history. All this new knowledge and technology led to speculation about how so much progress was made. Thus was the study of modern history born, and the idea that historical progress has to be viewed over extremely long spans. For the vast majority of human history, when people recounted historical events, these events might as well have happened when the listeners’ grandparents were children.  Until extremely recently in human history, it did not occur to most people in most civilizations to measure time precisely. Enter Giambattista Vico, the Italian philosopher, operating in the 1720’s. Vico’s primary idea is the ‘Verum Factum:’ The truth is not something observed, as Descartes or Plato believed, but formed. Nothing of this world, not even mathematics or science, is grounded in eternal truths but only in human perceptions of the eternal truths. Knowledge is therefore something to be understood, analyzed, and abstracted, but never something to be understood in its totality. The only way in which we can increase our knowledge is by asking ‘why did this happen?’ ‘why did we develop this knowledge?’ And because we have the capability of human thought and empathy, we can attempt to enter into the minds of the people who may have caused such events. In abstract, even if not in practice, this idea sounds very much like something out of Immanuel Kant, but Vico published all this when Kant was still a baby.  

1 D. Montesquieu explains Vico - If Vico founded modern history, then Montesquieu founded modern social science. Among his other contributions, Vico provided the first foray into modern historical interpretation by using language to show how civilizations evolve through their rise and decline through the meanings they ascribed to certain words. And while it’s probable that Montesquieu never read Vico (though Marx certainly did), he somehow intuited Vico’s ideas about historical evolution and took them to the next logical step. He compared the legal systems, and through their laws, he intuited their entire cultural makeup - their customs, their morals, their aesthetics, their religion. He went through many different civilizations to show that each civilization rises and falls by how well they uphold their own principles. French people have a conception of Frenchness, English a conception of Englishness, Persians a conception of Persianness. Each is based in part on their national character, based in part by the climate in which they live. In our day when questions of orientalism and agency have gained so much importance, this may seem rather backward. But for its time, it was astonishingly progressive. It allowed that men were in fact different, and there is not a single, unifying vision for all mankind that would be true for all men, but that the rules of one society should allow for the toleration of another society’s rules.

1 D I. Darwin the Humanist - It may seem odd to attribute so much of the evolution's evolution to the humanities. But Darwin was nearly as much a literary man as he was a scientist, and his concept of evolution would not be possible without a working knowledge of the humanities. It is foolish to say that Darwin had nothing to do with the ideas of Social Darwinism that followed him. He intuited the idea of evolution as much from ideas that were circulating in the social sciences as he did from geology or Lamarckian biology. From Vico came the idea that the world must develop over enormous spans of time. From Montesquieu came the idea that the world develops differently in different spaces. Later thinkers unfortunately used Darwin's ideas to promote evil, which is the curse of all great thinkers.

1 E. Lamarck explains Montesquieu - While the Comte de Buffon was the first writer to present a theory of biological evolution in the 1750’s, it was still only speculative and unthorough. Due to the still-overwhelming power of the Catholic Church, Buffon could only be presented his theory to the public as a vague, ironic speculation. It was only in the early nineteenth century with the coming of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck that the world was able to seriously reformulate biology according to all the new developments in physics and the social sciences. For his contribution, Lamarck has been derided, scorned, and mocked as one of science’s greatest idiots for two centuries. But like many morons, Lamarck had a secretly brilliant side to him, and acknowledgement to that brilliant side is long overdue.

1 E I. Lamarck and the Giraffe The most famous example of Lamarck’s most important theory is the example of the giraffe. He believed that the giraffe developed its long neck by the successive efforts of generations of giraffes to reach the leaves of trees. This sounds absurd, and yet, it only sounds absurd because it is one degree removed from the truth. Environment does determine a species’s evolution, but it does not do so on an individual-by-individual basis. No individual is a blank slate which can simply mould itself to its environment like putty. But even so, Lamarck’s theory is not even completely one degree removed from the truth. A giraffe, like nearly every animal, must grow to its full height, and in order to do so, must exhibit an elemental will to live. It was simply Montesquieu’s study of climate forming history applied to the history of biology, and like Montesquieu, a significant step closer to the truth. Or put differently, Lamarck’s theory is simply Schopenhauer’s theory of the Will to Life, applied to organic biology. Furthermore, current genetic research shows that our DNA and our very genes can morph over time with regard to our life experiences. So yet again, Lamarck has been validated.

I F. Darwin explains Lamarck Like Galileo and Kepler before him, the ‘why’ of his field eluded Lamarck. What Lamarck lacked which Darwin had was an extensive private collection based on extremely extensive travel. Darwin, an immensely wealthy heir to a huge fortune, was able to use his wealth to travel and collect thousands of specimens which no one else would ever be able to obtain, and then write pages upon pages describing each of them, and then draw conclusions based on his findings.  

1 F I. Natural Selection vs. Universal Gravitation - Much like Newton before him, Darwin discovered the ‘why.’ Newton is famous for saying ‘if I have seen farther, it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants.’ He was able to do so because everything was in place - a reliable telescope, calculus, the proper shape of the world’s orbit, the proof of moons orbiting Jupiter - which proves that the world is not geo(Earth)centric. All that was needed was a basic explanation of the why all this happened. In the same way, the pieces were in place for Darwin - evolution was already widely debated, and the world finally awoke to a proper sense of the enormity of the scale of time and space on which it was placed.

1 G. Darwin explains Us - As soon as Darwin published, something snapped in the air. From Newton to Darwin, the world was being set into place.  Until On the Origin of Species, the world was moving toward a faster pace, but it never really achieved it. Newton supplanted ancient learning about the world above and below us, but Darwin supplanted ancient wisdom about the world of us. The world of monotheism, the world under the word of the Gospels and the Koran, as it existed roughly from the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 337 until Darwin published, was a world of uniformity. The world was united under monolithic Empires, each of which strove mightily (even if not successfully) to bring all its territories under the thumb of the same one god, the same collection of laws, the same language, and the same immutable, eternal truths. But natural selection demonstrated a way in which the world was constantly changing to fit the world’s ever changing circumstances. The world of the eternal kingdom, with eternal representatives on earth, was no longer possible. Empires began to die off, while experiments in democracy and republicanism, once thought the dangerous experiments of pre-Christian Greece and Rome, began to spring up all across the globe.

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