Mar 152011

This morning I was thinking about the difference between thoughts and attitudes. Attitudes are semi-conscious tilts toward or away from ideas that somehow also precede ideas and condition our acceptance or rejection of ideas. Attitudes seem to exist prior to ideas, with feelings attached, and make the acceptance or rejection of ideas easier. Attitudes are the emotional or psychological structures attached to schematic world views that are somehow absorbed prior to critical thought. Even a predisposition to critical thought is an attitude.

In my lecture at the residency last January, I talked about the metaphysical two-world paradigm that has dogged human thought for thousands of years. There are two basic paradigms in this regard: the Platonic two-world paradigm and the Aristotelean one-world or scientific paradigm. These are very old ideas, ways of thinking, ruts, that people fall into repeating without thinking. And even after thinking about them, people still fall into them (this is the history of western philosophy). We spout fragments of these ideas unknowingly every day of our lives; they somehow live in the discourse of our culture.

Another ancient paradigm we tend to adopt without thinking is the Great Chain of Being which creates a hierarchy of existence, a graded system of value with humans on top and rocks at the bottom, a pretty comforting world view for humans. The Great Chain of Being is basically an outgrowth of the two-world metaphysical paradigm. You can look this up in Arthur Lovejoy’s book The Great Chain of Being. E. M. W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture is good, too.

Frank E. Manuel’s little book Shapes of Philosophical History is a like-minded historical analysis of the two basic time paradigms: the cyclical view of history and the linear view. Like the two-world paradigm, the cyclical paradigm is archaic, a vestige of oral cultures (and humans inhabited an oral universe for perhaps 100,000 years; literacy has been around for only a couple of  thousand—old ideas die hard). Temporal shapes such as birth-maturation-death, primitive-classical-decadent, the rise and fall of civilizations, etc. are examples of cyclical thinking. The linear view is seems to start with Christianity with its Apocalyptic notion that the world is coming to an end after which some of us will rise again and go to Heaven. Augustine, a Berber tribesman from what is now Algeria who became a Christian bishop, saw history as a progress toward the City of God, the new Jerusalem. Later on, French Enlightenment philosophers invented the modern notion of “progress” which is the idea that science will invent more and better ways to make humans comfortable and happy faster and faster. Evolution itself is an application of the linear paradigm to biology. We “think” fragments of these two ideas every day of our lives as well. Every time you think that culture is in decline, you are mouthing one paradigm. Every time you notice how much cheaper and smarter computers and cell phones are, you’re modeling the other paradigm. The emotional attitudes attached to these paradigms are nostalgia and hope. We moderns are caught between nostalgia and hope, with nostalgia (for a better, simpler, more primitive and virtuous existence) probably predominant. Heidegger’s “forgetting of Being” is a philosophical expression of nostalgia.

These shapes or paradigms are ways of giving structure and meaning to the mega-data of existence. They beg the question as to whether or not the shapes bear any relation to existence. They make humans feel better. A distant alternative to cycles and lines would be Democritus’s idea of time as “whirl” which doesn’t seem nearly as appealing.

The trick is to try to catch yourselves thinking in archaic paradigms and then ask yourselves what is real.


  7 Responses to “In the grip of archaic paradigms”

  1. this is an intereting muse… I need to ponder more…first off the top of my head this morning…I was thinking how much Japan (and the rest of the world) could have used a smarter computer (at least one) a few hours before the world shifted off its axis…

  2. Thinking something is real could be another falsity, right? The more I think about things like this, the more uncertain and confused I become. Doesn’t all thinking occur within a paradigm?

    • a) I wasn’t talking about truth or falsity. The paradigms mentioned above are ancient patterns of thought that often seem to come in antithetical pairs. The key point is that we mostly fall into thinking in these patterns without actually thinking.

      b) Yes, thinking seems to take place within paradigms. This is the old Platonic problem of knowledge; it seems you have to already know something in order to know it. But one can critique one’s paradigms and not apply them without thinking about them.

      c) And ask yourself what it would be like to think in an altogether different paradigm. Is that possible?

  3. Re: evolution as linear paradigm, I recently stumbled across a book that might serve as sort of counterweight to this – A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, by Manuel de Landa. I’ve barely cracked it so far, so I can’t comment intelligently, but here’s an early paragraph that gives a taste of where he’s going (I think):

    “In the nonlinear spirit of this book, these three world (geological, biological, and linguistic) will not be viewed as the progressively more sophisticated stages of an evolution that culminates in humanity as its crowning achievement. It is trut that a small subset of geological materials (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nine other elements) formed the substratum needed for living creatures to emerge and that a small subset of organic materials (certain neurons in the brain) provided the substratrum for language. But far from advancing in stages of increased perfection, these successive emergences were – and will be treated here as – mere accumulations of different types of materials, accumulations in which each successive layer does not form a new world closed in on itself but, on the contrary, results in coexistences and interactions of different kinds. Besides, each accumulated layer is animated from within by self-organizing processes, and the forces and constraints behind this spontaneous generation of order are common to all three.” (p. 21)

    I am quite excited to see where he goes with this.

    • It’ll be interesting to see what he’s saying. As I say in the post, cyclical or circular history is the usual alternative (and the life cycle is the obvious biological application of the circular paradigm).

      • Ha!@#*! This paragraph could have been from an essay that I am working on! It is interesting that de Landa characterizes this view as “non-linear” – I would consider it definitely linear, but with a serious divergent twist from “linear” as presented above by dg. Court, please do let us know where he goes with this.

        • Not one to shy from arrogance, I should nevertheless clarify:
          I think it is extraordinarily difficult to think in foreign paradigms, but that is precises what the best scientists do (not me). The not-linear, not-circular paradigm that I am referring to is one that I believe is common among scientists but perhaps not yet a driving cultural paradigm (anyone picking up a theme in my comments?).

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