As I work through the recent works of Peter Sloterdijk (Spheres I: Bubbles, Spheres II: Globes), I am chiefly amazed and enthused by his ability to find deep symbolic and mythic connections throughout the history of philosophical thought, and to use that understanding to bring our culture into a startlingly fresh relief. His insights make me feel as if the rest of us are sleepwalking through time. As much as we like to pretend otherwise, we are still mythic beings, ordering our experience according to prehistoric passions and plots. Perhaps every age thinks they are doing something different, and are at last bringing clear and objective thought to what was once distorted through prejudice and magical thinking. But it seems to me that this pretense of objectivity is at an all time high in our culture – for we do have, unquestionably, the most advanced sciences ever. We think now in terms of demythologizing – as if that is ever possible for human beings. We think we can carve our own psychologies out of our theory-making efforts and grasp things in themselves as they are in themselves, if only we make good use of careful experiments and double-blind refereeing processes. We even believe we can see ourselves as we are in ourselves, even when it is we who are doing the looking.
This perspective cuts us off from our own history. For we are instituting a new dateline – something like “Before Darwin vs. After Darwin” or more likely “Before WW2 vs. After WW2”, since that also marks the rise of the modern research university, before which (apparently) no trustworthy science was ever done. We tend to see our new theories and insights as qualitatively different from anything proposed earlier. This turns our history into an inchoate prelude to the present. If we do make the effort to cast a glance backward, we feel that we can sort out the thinking that was on the right track from the crazy or “insufficiently critical” thinking of the past – ignoring the fact that then, as now, everything is thoroughly entwined with everything else, and our current efforts at understanding are in fact not qualitatively different than historical efforts. We are always and forever “in a fine mess,” as Oliver Hardy would say, mixing up mythologies and metaphysics with science, literature, and politics.
When we think of the gradual shift among European cultures from paganism to Christianity, we are likely to see one wacked-out metaphysics being replaced by another: where people once saw divinities in nature, and magical forces permeating their lives, they now saw the Holy Ghost and the salvific powers of the Church alongside the forces of sin and grace. No real advance there: just the exchange of one lunacy for another. But the shift from “Before the Modern” to “the Modern” marks exactly the same sort of transformation: metaphysical lunacy abounds though we are unlikely to see it because we are so closely bound up with it. We are likely to insist just as stubbornly as did the new Christian converts that there is genuine progress in the shift, using of course our new found values to prove how genuine the progress is.
Our own metaphysical lunacy sees individuals as free-floating agents, interested first and foremost in extending their privileges. We are objects rattling around in an uncaring world that has no purpose or end. The power of art and religion is couched only in terms of psychology and sociology – their meaning lies in what they do for us or to us. We conflate reasons with causes. There can be no transcendent or categorical ends, as every end can be understood only as a provisional end adopted by an individual or group. We are content to understand the meaning of life as a matter of choice for individuals to set for themselves.
I am not about to try to call us back to the good old days. Rather, I am pointing out this metaphysics – our metaphysics – as one among many different possible ones. It is not that we have finally seen what is true; it is just that this is where we now find ourselves. Once we grasp this, we can try to understand our mythology as mythology, and then try to integrate it with the mythologies our species has adopted at other times and places. We can begin to see our continuity with our past as thinking, culture-making entities. And then we can begin to see how remarkably weird we are – that is, we can see how arbitrary our metaphysics is, and how strange we are when we take it as granted.
If we manage to attain this perspective, we will have found the sort of skepticism David Hume promoted. In a slogan, Hume’s skepticism was an attempt to recall ourselves to ourselves: that is, to bear in mind our own weaknesses and susceptibility to nonrational influence. He never doubted common sense, or the conclusions of “natural philosophy” or science. But he also knew better than to take them seriously as definitive, proven, or inescapable:
When we see, that we have arrived at the utmost extent of human reason, we sit down contented; tho’ we be perfectly satisfied in the main of our ignorance, and perceive that we can give no reason for our most general and most refined principles, beside our experience of their reality; which is the reason of the mere vulgar, and what it required no study at first to have discovered for the most particular and most extraordinary phenomena. And as this impossibility of making any further progress is enough to satisfy the reader, so the writer may derive a more delicate satisfaction from the free confession of his own ignorance, and from his prudence in avoiding that error, into which so many have fallen, of imposing their conjectures and hypotheses on the world for most certain principles. When this mutual contentment can be obtained betwixt the master and scholar, I know not what more we can require of our philosophy.
The chief difference in this regard between Sloterdijk and Hume is one of method. Sloterdijk shows us our provinciality through exhaustively exploring the other strange metaphysical routes we have taken in the past, along with another strange one – “spherological” – we might now adopt as a live possibility. Hume arrives at a contented agnosticism (his own live option) by deconstructing our “reason” from within.
I agree with all this but I’m not sure how well it jives with a statement like “we’ve gotten much better at encryption and microprocessor architecture over the past few decades”. That sort of statement makes me realize that metaphysical lunacies aside, there’s some sort of progress actually being made. Or at the least that I believe in one type of progress. Maybe these beliefs are contradictory, “i am large” and all that.
Yes, I’m not sure either. I think there must be some gradual shading, from phenomena with which we can easily interact, to more general beliefs and “isms” which are grounded quite loosely in experience.