28 May 2013

the vision of things as "disenchanted"

The Epicureans and Sceptics achieved a notion of self-definition by withdrawal from the world; their weapon was scepticism about cosmic order, or a plea for the irrelevance of the Gods. By contrast the modern shift to a self-defining subject was bound up with a sense of control over the world - at first intellectual and then technological. That is, the modern certainty that the world was not to be seen as a text or an embodiment of meaning was not founded on a sense of its baffling impenetrability. On the contrary, it grew with the mapping of the regularities in things, by transparent mathematical reasoning, and with the consequent increase of manipulative control. That is what ultimately established the picture of the world as the locus of neutral, contingent correlations. Ancient sceptics while denying our ability to know the nature of things, had claimed that men had enough immediately relevant grasp on their situation to go about the business of life. While sometimes taking up the same formulae, the seventeenth century changed their content radically. The immediately relevant knowledge which was not to be compared with knowledge of final causes came to enjoy a higher and higher prestige. It came to be understood as the paradigm of knowledge.

This control over things which has grown with modern science and technology is often thought of as the principal motivation behind the scientific revolution and the development of the modern outlook. Bacon's oft-quoted slogan, 'knowledge is power' can easily give us this impression, and this 'technological' view of the seventeenth-century revolution is one of the reasons why Bacon has often been given a greater role in it than he deserves, alongside Galileo and Descartes. But even in Bacon's case, when he insists on the nullity of a philosophy from which there cannot be 'adduced a single experiment which tends to relieve and benefit the condition of man', we can read his motivation in a different way. We rather see the control as valuable not so much in itself as in its confirmation of a certain view of things: a view of the world not as a locus of meanings, but rather of contingent, de facto correlations. Manipulability of the world confirms the new self-defining identity, as it were: the proper relation of man to a meaningful order is to put himself into tune with it; by contrast nothing sets the seal more clearly on the rejection of this vision than successfully treating the world as object of control. Manipulation both proves and as it were celebrates the vision of things as 'disenchanted' (entzaubert) to use Max Weber's famous phrase.

Technological progress has so transformed our lives and produced so many things we could barely do without, that we easily think of the 'pay-off' of the seventeenth-century revolution in terms of these benefits (if such they unambiguously are). But in the seventeenth century itself, this pay-off was very slim. For Bacon and the other men of his time, control was more important for what it proved. In the very passage quoted above where he speaks of relieving and benefitting the condition of man, Bacon says: 'For fruits and works are as it were sponsors and sureties for the truth of philosophies.' And later he makes an explicit comparison of the relative importance of the two considerations: 'works themselves are of greater value as pledges of truth than as contributing to the comforts of life'. We have no reason to think of this as false scientific piety.

Bacon later defines this goal which 'is in itself more worthy than all the fruits of inventions' as 'the very contemplation of things as they are, without superstition or imposture, error or confusion'. My suggestion is that one of the powerful attractions of this austere vision, long before it 'paid off' in technology, lies in the fact that a disenchanted world is correlative to a self-defining subject, and that the winning through to a self-defining identity was accompanied by a sense of exhilaration and power, that the subject need no longer define his perfection or vice, his equilibrium or disharmony, in relation to an external order. With the forging of this modern subjectivity there comes a new notion of freedom, and a newly central role attributed to freedom, which seems to have proved itself definitive and irreversible.

Charles Taylor, Hegel, 7-9