by Mark Anthony Signorelli (July 2010)
The following is a speech delivered by Mr. Signorelli to the 2010 New English Review Symposium, “Decline Fall & Islam,” on June 19, 2010.
In the third book of Gulliver’s Travels, Swift’s hero visits the famous Academy at Lagado, a passage which is generally understood as a parody of the Royal Society, and the single-minded commitment to scientific methodology which that institution represented to Swift. Among the ludicrous experiments being conducted by the Academy members is one undertaken by a professor in the School of Languages, which he calls “a scheme for abolishing all words whatsoever.” The professor reasons that “since words are only names for things, it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express the particular business they are to discourse on.” This plan, he admits, can occasion difficulty for those who converse on important or complex matters, as they are compelled to carry upon their backs a “great bundle of things,” yet the scheme has the advantage of preserving one’s health, since every word spoken causes a “diminution of our lungs by corrosion,” and the less words spoken, the less corrosion.
As diverting as this imagined experiment is, Swift is not wholly indulging his fancy in this passage. A distrust of language, and a suspicion of its lack of accurate correspondence with the things of the world, was a staple of early apologetics for the scientific movement. Bacon, in his famous passage in the Novum Organum on the four idols of the mind, warned against the implicit deceptiveness of language, what he called the Idols of the Marketplace. And Bishop Sprat, who wrote the “History of the Royal Society,” flatly asserted that it was the aim of modern scientists to grasp “not the artifice of words, but a bare knowledge of things.” It is undoubtedly with these passages in mind that Swift wrote the piece I have cited, as a lampoon of such opinions.
The suspicion of language’s inability to get at the truth of things was itself a kind of corollary to the great principle of the scientific revolution, that all certain and objectively true facts about nature could be expressed in mathematical form. Where language is imprecise and deceptive, mathematics is indisputable. Let me emphasize this point. This was the central conviction of the scientific revolution, and the attempt to reduce the phenomenon of nature to mathematical demonstrations was the endeavor of the age. Thus Kepler boasted: “I also show how these physical courses are to be given numerical and geometrical expression.”[i] Galileo regarded the universe as a book to be deciphered by the scientist, written in the language of mathematics[ii][iii] It was this attempt to generate mathematical descriptions of nature that constituted the intellectual “revolution” in the scientific revolution. For ourselves, who live in an era when propaganda concerning the unique truthfulness of the sciences abounds, it is helpful to remind ourselves of the genuine foundation of such claims. Undoubtedly, there are few things in the world more certain than a mathematical equation worked out correctly, so if the scientist can demonstrate how a particular natural phenomenon can be expressed by such an equation, he has a fair right to claim certainty for his conclusions. But it is only by the production, or at least the promise, of such mathematical demonstrations that the scientist earns the right to assert the certainty of his conclusions. Mathematical exactitude is the promissory note upon which all scientific propositions are written
Since the time of Galileo and Newton, scientific statements have become paradigmatically truthful for Western man. In the modern world, whatever facts about the world can be expressed scientifically are true, certainly and completely. Everything else is somehow “less true.” But if the certainty of scientific claims is a consequence of their potential expression as mathematical propositions, obviously only those aspects of nature which can be quantified or measured (the so-called “primary” qualities of mass, figure, and velocity) will be subject to such expression. Now it just so happens that by far the greater portion of human experience is not quantifiable or measurable, because by far the greater portion of human experience cannot be adequately described exclusively in terms of mass, figure and velocity, and I refer specifically to the contents of any aesthetic, ethical, political, or theological assertion – so-called “value-judgments” – which, for this reason, can never be reduced to mathematical expression. Many thinkers in our own time – and some quite prominent – insist that such philosophical issues can be handled adequately by the sciences, but until they demonstrate how an ethical or political statement can be expressed mathematically, this is no more than an idle pretense, though one which serves to remind us of the privileged place we now accord to scientific accounts of the world. The truth remains that such assertions cannot be scientifically verified. So the modern mind has come to regard all such assertions as simply “less true” than scientific claims. Philosophical statements come to be considered emotional effusions, or the cloak over hegemonic power, or what have you, but not objective statements about the things of the world, in the way that scientific claims are objective statements about the things of the world. Simply put, modern Western man, as a consequence of his adoration of science, has come to perceive statements of an aesthetic, ethical, political, or theological purport to be “subjective,” or “relative,” or some other term which denotes their status as “less true.”
Complaints about the “relativism” of our times abound (I think “nihilism” is the more precise term). All of us, I suspect, recognize the hugely deleterious effects of the relativistic attitude, and its implication in the decadence of contemporary Western culture. For those gathered in this room, the most immediately catastrophic consequences of relativism can be traced in the Western world’s startling incapacity to defend its ancient foundational principles against the incursions of a thoroughly alien and aggressive ideology. Yet, in fact, the consequences of contemporary relativism can be discerned in a thousand different and native barbarisms, great and trivial, which proliferate ever more and more in our society, and which, to speak truly, sapped the vitality of Western civilization long before the advent of the Islamic threat. We have lost the capacity to concur in the most evident of value-judgments, not so much because we have competing versions of the truth concerning values, but because, by and large, we generally do not think that there is a truth concerning values. My thesis is that the roots of this relativism can be found in the modern ascendancy of science to a status of privileged and unique truthfulness or, another way to state this is, once one ascribes to the belief that science presents the supreme version of the truth, one is logically committed to some form of relativism – and modern Western man largely ascribes to the belief that science presents the supreme version of the truth.
It seems to me, then, to be a necessary task at this historical juncture to remind ourselves of the basis for science’s claim to unique truthfulness. To recapitulate: that claim lies in the certainty of scientific statements; that certainty itself lies in the mathematical exactitude of scientific laws; and that mathematical exactitude is only achievable by omitting whole swathes of human experience – what is not measurable or quantifiable – from consideration. So the certainty of scientific conclusions is bought at the price of what the philosopher E.A. Burtt calls a “radical piece of cosmic surgery.” (305) It is quite as though one were to say, “I can tell you everything there is to know about Smith with great exactitude, just so long as we ignore his personality and his experiences.” But of course, it just is Smith’s personality and experiences that are the most distinctive and interesting things about him. Scientific descriptions of the world are like that, omitting the most distinctive and interesting facts about our world. It is high time for Western man to acknowledge that there is more to truthfulness than just certainty; there is universality, there is consequentiality, and there is explanatory power, and in these respects, the scientific version of the truth fails massively, and therefore does not merit its contemporary status of unique truthfulness.
If the qualitative world of human experience cannot be adequately described or expressed by mathematics, it certainly does not follow that it cannot be described or expressed at all. Where mathematics fails in this regard, language succeeds. This is not to deny the common failure of words to correspond accurately to things, such as Bacon and Sprat lamented, but only to say that that failure is not incorrigible or intrinsic, and that language can at least approximate a true account of the totality of human experience. Language has its own methods of verification – propounded in the disciplines of grammar, rhetoric, and logic – and there is no good reason to suppose these methods are universally or inherently misleading. Language is the only tool we possess which is capable of expressing and describing what it is like to be a conscious human being. It is the only thing which brings to the light of understanding our desires, our active principales, and our final cosmological convictions. It is therefore the only instrument capable of arbitrating questions of value, which inevitably involve the content of conscious experience. Heidegger once famously, and quite enigmatically, called language “the house of being,” and whatever may be the truth of this label, it is quite certain that language is “the house of value.” As it is perfectly arbitrary to regard consciousness and its contents as somehow less real – “less true” – than the world of mass and extension, it is equally arbitrary to regard value judgments as “less true” than scientific propositions, simply because they remain refractory to mathematical demonstration. What follows from this is that those disciplines which pursue irreducibly linguistic propositions – which is to say, the humanities – have their own validity, and their own truthfulness, particularly in regard to questions of an aesthetic, ethical, political, or theological significance. Simply put, there is no legitimate reason to believe, on some a priori grounds, that humanistic work, and the value judgments it contains, are “less true,” merely because they are not subject to scientific verification.
All of this, I am certain, would have been taken for granted by generations of Western man prior to the advent of the modern era, because Western culture, and especially Western pedagogy, was primarily literary throughout that time. From antiquity until the end of the 19th century, the indispensable attribute of an educated person was the attainment of advanced literacy, and at least some familiarity with the classic humanistic texts, in the fields of philosophy, political theory, history, and first and foremost, poetry. If we are to speak about regaining the glories and benefits of Western civilization, we are speaking about recreating a fundamentally literary civilization, for that is what the West was. More to the point, only the re-creation of a vital literary, humanistic tradition gives us hope of overcoming the invidious relativism of our time, and effectively establishing those principles necessary for the continuance of civil society.
[i] Quoted in Briggs, Robin The Scientific Revolution of the 17th Century (London: Longman, 1969) 43.
[ii] Cohen, I. Bernard Revolutions in Science (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1985) 140.
[iii] Boynton, Holmes, ed. The Beginnings of Modern Science (New York: Walter J. Black, 1948) 50, 63.
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