Wednesday, December 14, 2011

John Lukacs on Knowledge & History: "Putting Man Before Descartes"

Besides the catchy title, and with the knowledge that one cannot read too much John Lukacs, I'm posting excerpts from this article from The American Scholar published in 2008 that I found a while ago. His view of knowledge is to some extent unusual and certainly worth considering. In fact, I think that he has a superb perspective on the matter. How we "know" (epistemology) is a crucial issue in everyday life, not to mention any discipline of study. Very worthwhile and thought provoking--but then what else would you expect from Lukacs? And for your delectation, a few choice quotes from the article:

I was still very young when I saw that historians, or indeed scholars and scientists and human beings of all kinds, are not objective. Many who wished to impress the world thought that they were objective. And there are still many historians and even more scientists of that kind, men with gray ice on their faces.

But isn’t objectivity an ideal? No: because the purpose of human knowledge—indeed, of human life itself—is not accuracy, and not even certainty; it is understanding.

History involves the knowledge of human beings of other human beings. This knowledge differs from other kinds, since human beings are the most complex organisms in the entire universe.

The ideal of objectivity is the antiseptic separation of the knower from the known. Understanding involves an approach to bring the two closer. But there is, there can be, no essential separation of the knower from the known.

We are human beings with inevitable limitations. We think in words, especially when it comes to history, which has no language of its own, no scientific terminology: we speak and write and teach history in words. Besides, words and language have their own histories.

Every human being sees the world in his own way. That is inevitable but not determined. We choose not only what and how we think but what and how we see. According to subjectivism I can think and see in only one (my) way; he in another (his) way. This is wrong, because thinking and seeing are creative acts coming from the inside, not the outside. Which is why we are responsible both for how and what we do or say as well as for how and what we think and see (or, for what we want to think and for what we want to see).

Knowledge, which is neither objective nor subjective, is always personal. Not individual: personal. The concept of the individual has been one of the essential misconceptions of political liberalism. Every human being is unique, but he does not exist alone. He is dependent on others (a human baby for much longer than the offspring of other animals); his existence is inseparable from his relations with other human beings.

But there is more to that. Our knowledge is not only personal; it is also participant. There is—yet there cannot be—a separation of the knower from the known. We must see further than this. It is not enough to recognize the impossibility (perhaps even the absurdity) of the ideal of their antiseptic, objective separation. What concerns—or should concern—us is something more than the inseparability; it is the involvement of the knower with the known. That this is so when it comes to the reading, researching, writing, and thinking of history should be rather obvious. Detachment from one’s passions and memories is often commendable. But detachment, too, is something different from separation; it involves the ability (issuing from one’s willingness) to achieve a stance of a longer or higher perspective. The choice for such a stance does not necessarily mean a reduction of one’s personal interest, of participation—perhaps even the contrary.

mechanical causality is insufficient to understand the functioning of our minds and consequently of our lives—and even the sense and the meaning of our memories. Every human action, every human thought is something more than a reaction. (That is how and why history never repeats itself.) The human mind intrudes into and complicates the very structure of events.

This relationship, this intrusion of mind into matter, is not constant. Perhaps the evolution of human consciousness may be the only evolution there is. In this age of democracy, this intrusion of mind into matter tends to increase. That is a startling paradox, a development at the same time when the applications of mechanical causality govern the lives of mankind more than ever before.

History is larger than science, since science is part of history and not the other way around. First came nature, then came man, and then the science of nature. No scientists, no science.

Our consciousness, our central situation in space, cannot be separated from our consciousness of time.

The arguments of creationism against evolutionism entirely miss this essential matter. The language of those creationists and anti-Darwinists who proclaim the existence of an Intelligent Design is ludicrous: it reduces God to a role model of a rocket scientist or of a brilliant computer programmer. The matter is the unavoidable contradiction not between Evolution and Creation but between evolution and history. History, because in the entire universe we are the only historical beings. Our lives are not automatic; we are responsible for what we do, say, and think. The coming of Darwinism was historical; it appeared at a time of unquestioned progress. But its essence was, and remains, antihistorical. It elongated the presence of mankind to an ever-increasing extent, by now stretching the first appearance of man on this earth to more than a million years—implying that consequently there may be something like another million years to come for us. Ought we not to question this kind of progressive optimism, especially at a time when men are capable of altering nature here and there and of destroying much of the world, including many of themselves?

No comments: