Reading journal: Cosmopolis

I read this book, by Stephen Toulmin, in search of direction for thinking about this whole man v. nature thing. I’m finding that it’s the history that’s most useful for me – as usual it’s not enough to have the ideas, there has to be a story containing the ideas.
The story here starts with Henri IV of France, (Henry of Navarre) trying to make everyone just get along as religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants grew. At that time people thought in a way that is remarkably recognizable to people today: Henri talked about tolerance and pluralism, his compatriot Michel de Montaigne wrote in a style that still speaks to the modern ear. There’s a reason for this Toulmin says: humanists like Montaigne were on to something that we are just now getting back to after 300 years of diversion. We were sidetracked when an assassin (Francois Ravaillac) dove
into Henri’s carriage and stabbed him as he drove across Paris. Lone knifeman or conspiracy? Ravaillac was the Lee Harvey Oswald of the day. There was lots of speculation and we still don’t know definitively. But we do know that Henri was the last thread holding back continental sectarian warfare and for the next 30 years it pretty much sucked to live in Europe. In reaction, thinkers of the time pushed hard for stability – at all costs. And so you go from Montaigne saying –  “unless some one thing is found of which we are completely certain, we can be certain about nothing” (he was reading the classical skeptics) – to Descartes directly answering “I think therefore I am,” and then building on this one (dubious) piece of solid ground a kind of philosophy that resembled Euclid’s proofs in its abstract precision. The idea was to get to some higher truth beyond the caprices of sectarian warlords – something that the pope and Luther could agree on. And it wasn’t just about religious warfare, everything was topsy-turvy in this era as the old city states lost power and before nations formed. So “the hidden agenda of Modernity” was to give legitimacy to the heirs of power – Newton’s ideas about inertia went over really well because he was saying it was right and natural for all these little atoms (people) to orbit the sun (government) and they don’t move on their own – they just bounce if they get hit by a cue ball or something. This sort of thing made leaders feel confident in claiming that popular uprisings were unnatural. (Joseph Priestly showed in 1777 that accepting the idea that matter could form living thinking systems makes no difference in Newton’s mechanics – at the same time he was celebrating the uprising of “mere atoms” in the French revolution. A mob, fearing a spread of that instability, burned down his house and he fled to America.)
Cosmopolis is a vision of a civilization (or polis) in perfect accord with the rules of Nature (which we see up in the cosmos) that can be decoded in these elegant formulas, which are ultimately God’s rules.
Descartes and Newton could be in the certainty business because they were dealing with abstract theory (Descartes more, Newton’s mechanics worked better out in space then in describing which way an apple would bounce after it fell on a head.)
Today the conflict is often science versus religion – but back then the humanists and the rationalists were both religious. While the humanists were freethinking, the rationalists were dogmatic and careful to qualify their findings in religious terms (77). We go from Montaigne and Bacon (even Copernicus) writing very freely about … everything (“the claims of friendship, cannibalism, nudity,” musical farting, sex) without worrying too much about what the authorities would think, to Newton being very circumspect and writing letters to explain how gravity was really the hand of God. “By contrast, the 17th-century founders of modern science and philosophy had theological commitments which shaped their whole enterprise. Repeatedly, Descarts and Newton express concern about the religious orthodoxy of their ideas” And this huge change happens in just 50 years – Toulmin isn’t saying this change was caused by Henri’s assassination and the Thirty Years War, but that these things were the visible signs of the intellectual revolution going on as Europe rediscovered classical literature and it became widely available via Gutenberg. Catholicism hardened. Where the church had once issued Summas, or philosophical treatises, it began issuing centrally authorized dogma in the form of Manuels and responsa. At the same time lay thinkers moved from “speculative and revisable docterines” to “immutable and infallable” laws.
The tension between theoretical science that traffics in these immutable laws and empiricism starts all the way back with an argument between Aristotle and Plato. Aristotle was all about observation and experimentation. He “exhorted us not to aim at certainty, necessity, or generality beyond ‘the nature of the case.’ … We need not be ashamed to limit our ambitions to the reach of humanity: such modesty does us credit. Meantime, the range of particular everyday phenomena, on which human experience gives solid testimony (love that: gives solid testimony), is unlimited in the realm of human affairs, and in natural history.” Science was practice to Aristotle. To Plato and his 17th century followers, science was theory. “They limited ‘rationality’ to theoretical arguments that achieve a quasi-geometrical certainty. (20)”
If this book has a hero it’s Montaigne who stands in as the humanist exemplar. Erasmus is the humanist I heard about in school but he doesn’t get much ink here. There’s a nice note about Erasmus and Luther, (25) they were friends – or at least warm correspondents. Erasmus was a loyal Catholic but he felt free to critique the church’s dogma. He tried to convince Luther that “private contrivance” worked better than nailing screeds to people’s doors. What if instead of leading a revolution, Martin had pushed for the evolution of the church?
The renaissance humanists were skeptics – which made them conservative about advocating for revolutions. (“Human modesty alone should teach reflective Christians how limited is there ability to reach unquestioned Truth.”) And Montaigne argued that they should put aside the big questions of general theory until they had a lot more data – and for the time being revel in accumulating a rich understanding of the world: How does a honeysuckle bloom unfold, how does a person fall in love, how do people around the world see things differently? The humanists recognized that Shakespeare’s plays contained keen observations and a rich store of information about how power and emotion worked in human relationships. The rationalists turned up their noses at Shakespeare: plays were frivolous, and they certainly had nothing to offer science.
The fall of Cosmopolis

Toulmin says the quest for certainty did nothing to stop the Thirty Years War, but for 266 years after the peace of Westphalia in 1648 it seemed like Cosmopolis was working. It’s hard to say whether it was this new way of thinking that brought stability, or if the various powers were simply too distracted by the colonial race overseas to fight it out at home (of course there are places like Ireland where the fight never stopped). Right up into the 20th century, the science founded in Cartesian rationalism was outgrowing its theoretical scaffolding. Enterprising scientists branching out into new fields found that they could do a lot more if they relied on Aristotelian (or da Vincian) experimentation than if they kept reasoning out more and more complicated proofs based on Descartes’ original cogito ergo sum. And science began knocking down the old assumptions. Einstein and Planck “broke the links between current physical theory and earlier Newtonian orthodoxy.” Darwin’s ideas were growing stronger and providing new metaphors. And Freud was dismantling the wall between reason and emotion. We were just about back to the intellectual freedom and human tolerance that Henri IV and Montaigne had seen just beyond their reach. But then things fell apart in The Great War.
And here Toulmin does a nice job of showing how the entire force of culture swung back toward Descartes. “Gustav Mahler’s chromatism was condemned as romantic excess, overripeness verging on corruption, like the texture of a persimmon” (my emphasis) and mathematical music like Arnold Schoenberg (“How the music sounds is not the point.”) was seen as the future. Piet Mondriaan and the painters in vogue had the same “intellectual cool.” Mies van der Rohe led an architectural revolt against local color (history, geography, story), instead seeking universal design principles. Thinkers and scientists went back to looking for formal theory to govern inherently messy systems (like genetic code). But these motions toward stability were futile after the First World War when it became clear that Cosmopolis (and the foundation of nationalism) was an illusion. In 1921 Yeats wrote The Second Coming, Werner Heisenberg undermined the last shreds of Cartesian certainty in 1927 and Hitler rose to power in Germany.
Humanism, or romanticism?
That brings us up to the history we all know: The swing back to abstraction lasts into the ’50s and then the ’60s finally get us back to humanism and all that that implies with art and music and the rest. This is where I think Toulmin goes off track a little. Rather than a triumphant return to humanism, I see the ’60s as a confused swing into romanticism. The kids saw the hollowness of rationalism (they worried about being “phonies”) but no one remembered Montainge and skepticism, instead they looked for another kind of certainty, one rooted in emotion and Nature and sensuality. Toulmin has a good characterization of romanticism:
“As a19th-century position, romanticism never broke with rationalism: rather, it was rationalism’s mirror-image.” Wordsworth and Goethe say: “human life that is ruled by calculative reason alone is scarcely worth living, and nobility attaches to a readiness to surrender to the experience of deep emotions. This is not a position that transcends 17th-century dualism: rather it accepts dualism, but votes for the opposite side of every dichotomy.”
The humanists valued civility highly – the hippies not so much. Civility was collateral damage in the culture wars. “the 1960s saw a move away from a politics of national goals – which aimed at consensus – toward a politics aimed at redressing traditional injustices, driven by confrontation of sectional interests.” It’s hard to imagine Erasmus arguing for confrontation. However, some parts of society understood the promise of humanism better than others: The bloody wars that Martin Luther started were not replayed by Martin Luther King Jr. He managed to stage a revolution without sacrificing civility.
Toulmin remarks on the many similarities between Henri IV and JFK (both ladies men, both popular, both assasinated, both seen as emblematic of hope for guiding the world to a more humane place), but he sees them as coincidental bookends. I disagree. Kennedy’s assasination had the same affect as Henri’s: It confused and delayed the realization of humanism.
This is a key point for thinking about nature – if everybody had begun thinking like Montaigne we’d be a lot less confused about nature and technology. Instead, we still have a sturdy force of rationalists in economics, nutrition, ag-science, public health (and probably every field) who omit the local, the particular, and the timely to make objective quantifications which (sometimes – sometimes quantification can be very useful) end up serving a cold rationalist vision rather than truly serving humanity. People still ardently defend the split between humans and nature (for some it’s a spiritual problem, for some a culinary one). There are still a lot of rationalists working to insulate humans from nature, who still see nature as an static backdrop and technological progress as a ladder to the mind of God. Of course these people aren’t going to worry about climate change,
On the other side you have a lot of romantics throwing the scientific baby out with the bathwater. They are trying to get back to an Edenic harmony with Nature, which is really a mirror image of Cosmopolis. After the history of scientific rationalism, with its many blindspots and missteps, you can see why they might be shy of vaccines.
Then there are a lot of post-modern thinkers working toward something new – but most of them are so focused on deconstruction that there is very little construction going on. There’s very little to stand on if you throw your lot in with them – absurdity and relativim. No thanks.
21st-century renaissance
By using Montainge as our model we can throw out Cartesian “Reason” and reclaim human reasoning. We don’t throw out science – the renaissance humanists were excited by the window to wonder provided by science. But rather than theorize about foundational principles and then set up science to bolster those ideas, we need science rooted in evidence and applicable to human practice. Science “that serves humanity” is often based in the old rationalist ideal of progress (see Feyerabend) rather than an honest assessment of what will actually make people happier. This sort of thing requires scientists to consider values – to tear down the wall between science and the humanties. Technology is forcing this merging in places – especially in clinical medicine where our technological ability to extend life and alter the body has thwarted “all attempts to freeze the distinction between “facts” and ‘values.'” (181) Toulmin tells the story of how the scientists working on the Manhattan Project took on the “sweet” technical problem while handing moral responsibility to the politicians – they were the “sons of bitches.” But as scientist Ken Bainbridge realized upon the first test blast, “Now we’re all sons of bitches.” (I’d like to see a section in every scientific paper – perhaps as part of the conclusion – that talks about (speculates on perhaps) what the findings mean when put back into the context of the larger human frame with all it’s idiosyncratic uncertainties.)

Skepticism doesn’t mean everything is relative and up for grabs. It means that we approach problems with humility. We do the best that we can with the understanding that we have. We adapt our techniques to (and pay attention to) the local, the particular and the timely. We stop worrying so much about episteme and start directing a lot more energy toward techne, “the wisdom needed to put techniques to work in concrete cases dealing with actual problems.” Instead of building a society that is stable (like Newton’s solar system) we need a society that is adaptive. Perhaps we should replace the mechanistic metaphors with biological ones – instead of revolution (and a clean slate from which to build new, perfect foundations) we need civil evolution (where species in parasitic relationships often transform their interactions into mutualism). One last quote “we may ignore the ideal of intellectual exactitude, with its idolization of geometrical proof and certainty. Instead, we must try to recapture the practical modesty of the humanists, which let them live free of anxiety, despite uncertainty, ambiguity, and pluralism.” (105)

Other points:
The civility issue is an important one. At this point we are stuck because the practical and the specific require small quiet conversations and everything these days is confrontational and conversations take place through the bullhorn of mass media.  

Rhetoric to formal logic
The humanists saw rhetoric and logic as complimentary disciplines – the way you make the argument is as important as the argument itself – they came from an oral storytelling tradition. Rationalists saw argument as the subterfuge – a way of dressing up faulty logic. (As a result you get all these philosophers who almost take pride in making their writing impenetrable – and I would argue that bad ideas have made their way into the canon under the subterfuge of bad rhetoric.) This was also a move from oral to written: Medieval teaching took the form of preaching. And this reinforced an interest in the particular because the clergy had a therapeutic or confessorial responsibility as well as a pedagogical one – they were responsible for individual souls, they had to bring these ideas to bear in the lives of real people. Once it was all on the written page it was much easier for theory to become abstract and general.
Local to the universal, particular to general

We go from case studies, practical philosophy to the search for universal principles. Valuing local knowledge and a curiosity about the diversity of the world gets thrown out. Local variation doesn’t matter if you can understand the abstract axioms that govern the universe. Descartes: “History is like foreign travel. It broadens the mind, but it does not deepen it.” He favored wiping the slate clean, and ignoring all traditional ideas in favor of cultural universals.
Timely to timeless
Renaissance humanists trying to deal with “legal, medical, or confessional practice” had to structure advice as the occasion required. Rationalist were not interested in the transitory, they wanted to understand the timeless properties that determined all of nature’s changeable ephemera.
Artificial divisions
The “chief girder” in the scaffolding of Modernity was the Cartesian dichotomy – the idea that humans are separate from nature, that we are somehow fundamentally different than other animals and that nature is this stable “set” on which we play out our lives (and which we can’t fundamentally change). This split also happens inside the body – the mind is cut away from the flesh. Emotion comes from nature and is utterly separate from “reason.” (108)
This split was important because the quest for certainty depended on decoding the fixed laws God made to spin the wheels of nature’s clock. Scientists are really about “reading His mind.” If humans are in there gumming up the works and moving the gears around the whole project becomes futile.
Basically Modernism was (is) all about stability and shutting down anything that threatens that. Sex really threatens stability – it breaks down family structure and class barriers and occasionally causes big wars (see Troy). Montaigne treats sex “as spontaneous, mutually pleasurable, and equal between sexes.” And Toulmin says that’s not a quirk – people were more relaxed about sex before the old order came crumbling down in 1610. Sexual inhibition sprang “from the fears  that came into existence de novo, when the class-based state was devised as a solution to the early-17th-century’s problems.”
Leviathan to Lilliput
Toulmin offers his own image to contrast with Hobbes’ Leviathan – a Gulliverian government hogtied by a million tiny cords from “willful social atoms” NGOs, social organizations, AARP, the Chamber of Commerce… I don’t know. I live in that world and every once in a while I want Gulliver to get up and do something useful. 

At some point check out Donald McCloskey “The rhetoric of economics”

Comments are closed.