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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Der Untergang des Abendlandes

The Loss of Reason and the Triumph of the Will

Regarding Sherlock Holmes and Pelham 1-2-3.....

The Age of Reason reached its zenith in the Middle Ages, when logic and reason became virtually the only genre of serious writing, The Question format was the dialectic: once one had decided a question, the write up would be formatted as follows:
1. The Question to be demonstrated. "Whether X....."
2. Antitheses: The principle Objections against the question. "It would seem not because...." (No "straw men" allowed.)
3. Thesis: "On the contrary...." The argument in favor of the question. Often a single one, but see below.
4. Synthesis: "Wherefore, I say..." The writer's resolution, weighing each of the arguments and drawing a conclusion.
5. The Responses: Specific rebuttals to each of the Objections.

The important thing was to consider the best arguments on either side of the question. The medievals not only applied this method to natural philosophy, but also even to theology, which, when you think on't showed a remarkable confidence in human reason. When a medieval held an opinion, it was arrived at in this manner: a considered opinion, not simply a whim accepted on faith.

One such opinion was the primacy of the intellect. The intellect was held to be prior to the will. Logically prior in the sense that you cannot desire something unless you first know it. How can you want what you don't know? But also in the sense of governing the will. We can decide not to act on a desire. We can know beauty, and desire beauty, but not grope the waitress.
This all began to change with the Modern Ages. The Renaissance backed off from Aristotelian empiricism in favor of Platonic mysticism. Science switched from a search for knowledge (cf. Aristotle) to a search for power over Nature (cf. Francis Bacon). The purpose of argument became not to reach the truth but simply to win the contest. Diatribe and other techniques became more important than syllogisms. The medieval scholastics were criticized for their obsession with logic and reason.
Eventually, science ceased to mean Aristotelian knowledge as such and became only tentative Popperian opinion. Next stop, faith. And a science whose goal is power is a science which focuses on results; on the answers rather than on the questions. This, whether the answers are used for corporate marketing of clever new gadgets or whether they are used to redistribute wealth from the First World to the Third.
Now, nothing dies all at once. Galileo, it is true, used ridicule, satire, diatribe, rhetorical tricks, and outright misrepresentation -- but he also used logic and reason. And something new: facts. The medievals had used observations, but the invention of a plethora of measuring instruments enabled the 17th century revolutionaries to create observations. Hence, "fact," from factum est, Latin for "that which has the property of having been made or accomplished." 
So an attenuated form of reasoning continued throughout the Modern Ages, most of all in the sciences, but also elsewhere in what Jacques Barzun called "the considered opinion" of the bourgeois. The Modern Ages were, above all, the Age of the Bourgeois. Starting in the 1950s this began to collapse. Barzun noted even then that "I feel that...." had begun to replace "I think that..." in common discourse. Nietzsche, of couse, had written even earlier (and approvingly where Barzun disapproved) of the Triumph of the Will. Truth, he wrote, is whatever makes you feel empowered. The Desire comes first. If it feels good, do it. What do we want? X! When do we want it? Now!
Barzun called this the Bohemian Project in contrast to the Bourgeois Project, and it was not all good or all bad on either side. There is something dull about "considered opinions." (Luther, with his damnation of "that whore, Reason," would have understood the Beats, would possibly have been one. -- There's an AH for you. --  He certainly threw over medieval versions of parental authority.) But Nietzsche, as usual saw more deeply: youth delights in the sputtering fuse, and does not really care about the explosion to come.
Now, about Sherlock Holmes and Pelham 1-2-3.
If you have not seen the original movie The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 [or read the book. Yes, there was a book.] do so now. I'll wait.
If you have not read the Sherlock Holmes story, you are an ignorant peasant with dung on your boots and not worth the time of day. However, if you saw the Jeremy Brett TV series, or even the old Basil Rathbone movies, you make the cut.
And surely you have seen the original Star Trek TV shows. The movies... wait for a while until we get there.    
There has been a remake of Pelham 1-2-3 starring Travolta.
There has been a "reimagining" of Star Trek.
There are ads on the TV for a new Sherlock Holmes, starring Downey.  
What all these have in common (or seem to, in the case of the ads) is that stories that were paradigmatically stories of reason -- the hijacker of the subway train, Spock (but even Bones and Kirk), Holmes -- are becoming the kind of people who say "I feel that..." rather than "I think that..."  
The ads for the new Holmes movie looks like an action-adventure: Iron Man does Victorian London. The New Spock is anything but cerebral. He had no trouble showing emotion. And the icy and sociopath Robert Shaw has given way to the crazed and pathological John Travolta.
This represents not only the Triumph of the Will over the Intellect, but also the triumph of the visual over the textual. The script matters a whole lot less than the cinematography these days, and the visual is foremost a non-logical medium. Logic, from λογος, meaning the word. The text appeals first to the intellect and only passes through the senses. But the visual appeals precisely to the senses. The visual may stimulate thought; but words must stimulate thought.
We are now seeing movies made by directors whose primary imaginations are visual, who never knew a world without television. Somewhere in the no man's land between the original Sherlock, the original Star Trek, the original Pelham and their newer incarnations, we seem to have crossed a line.
Or maybe not.


  1. I don't see how today is any less an Age of Reason than the Middle Ages. There are very few appeals to emotion in a typical article in a mathematics journal, for example, with the possible exception of an occasional letter to Notices.

    We can describe today's published discourse as the effect of the spread of writing beyond professional thinkers. The original style is preserved in the theorem--proof style.

    On the other hand, a lot more emotion is published nowadays.

  2. You have a good point. When writing was an intellectual pursuit, most writing was intellectual: i.e., in the middle ages. When it became a common accomplishment, much writing became commonplace.

    But what Barzun was noticing was a shift taking place in the 1950s; that the speech of the ordinary person was shifting from "I think that..." to "I feel that..." along with a general shift from the Bourgeois Project to the Bohemian Project and a general infantalizing of the population. Young men in their twenties now behave like teenagers used to.


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