Saturday, February 05, 2005

Rationalism and its wily adversary

Deep down I have always been a rationalist. I hold that one must strive as much a possible to form clear and distinct ideas (not as easy as it sounds) and to pursue their consequences wherever they may lead (harder still).

In my late teens I flirted with idea of adopting a religion. But I couldn’t summon the necessary suspension of disbelief.

My art-history teachers in graduate school reinforced my rationalist inclinations. Representing the Transatlantic Migration that so enriched American intellectual life, they had been trained in the strict canons of evidence and exposition inculcated in them in Central Europe (Before the Fall—1933). The architectural historian Richard Krautheimer, for example, had studied the discipline of the Civil Law, with its Greek and Roman foundations.

The crown on this training was my encounter in the ‘sixties in London with Karl Popper, then teaching at the London School of Economics. His ideas instructed me in a more sophisticated, but I think durable, approach. Propositions must be carefully formulated, but their truth can never be established with finality, no matter how much "testing" is applied. Instead, though, the falsity of many of them can be demonstrated. In a poignant phrase, Popper said that we must be prepared for our ideas to die in our place. It follows that there is no complete demonstration of truth, we can only seek higher and higher grades, as it were, of "truth content."

Of course Popper had rivals. Although I learned something from Thomas Kuhn, author of the widely read "Structure of Scientific Revolutions," the "Dada philosophy of science" of Paul Feyerabend seemed a passing fad of the counterculture seventies. Late in life Kuhn came to regret the postmodernist relativism he had inadvertently inspired.

Yet a correction, or a contrast, came from another quarter, Dr. Frances Yates whose teaching at the Warburg Institute came at the same time as Popper’s LSE hegemony. In her work on Giordano Bruno and the hermetic tradition, Yates showed that mystical beliefs helped inspire modern science. It is commonly supposed that these hermetic elements stem from the intrusion of Christianity; however, Yates showed that a principal source was a group of pagan late-antique treatises ascribed to the legendary Hermes Trismegistus. The irrational aspects of early modern science found a more popular exponent in the writings of Stephen Toulmin. D. P. Walker, Yates’ disciple, showed that the Decline of Hell (in his book of that name) was not so much a matter of the disproof of the idea, but of its gradual exhaustion and abandonment.

In the field of ancient philology E. R. Dodds showed (revising and improving Nietzsche’s "Birth of Tragedy") that irrational ideas enjoyed much more currency among the ancient Greeks than most were prepared to credit. The frequent revivals of Euripides’ "Bacchae" (e.g., "Dionysus in 69"), served to reinforce this point.

Admirers of modern avant-garde art have long portrayed it as the boon companion of modern science and enlightenment generally. Yet Sixten Ringbom and others revealed the prevalence of occultism, especially in abstraction. Both Kandinsky and Mondrian were involved with Elena Petrovna Blavatsky’s Theosophy. To this day there is much resistance to these findings. Early in his career the architect Le Corbusier responded to an occult work, "The Great Initiates," by a then-prominent Alsatian writer, Schurẻ. The hermetic commitment of Yeats and Strindberg, to name only two prominent writers, scarcely needs documenting.

So what is the upshot? My conclusion is this. Not infrequently, irrational concepts play a creative role in the generation of ideas. Yet it remains our duty to examine them critically, retaining what is useful, and press on to a greater synthesis.