November 23, 2009

Ways of Knowing

There are a few books one encounters in the course of one’s life that prove to be transformative. In most cases, one is not expecting this. But it happens, and you know that you’ll never look at the world in quite the same way. For me, one text that was particularly life-changing was a slender volume by the classical scholar John Finley, entitled Four Stages of Greek Thought. It was as if, within its pages, I discovered what kind of writer I wanted to be; even, what kind of life I wanted to lead.

Finley distinguishes between the heroic-visionary world of the Homeric Greeks and the theoretical-rational world of their successors. There is a scene in the Iliad, he tells us, in which Hector briefly leaves the battlefield and returns to Troy, to visit his wife and infant son. Standing in front of his house, he reaches out to take the child in his arms, but the boy draws back, frightened at Hector’s helmet with its horsehair crest. Hector laughs, takes off the helmet, and puts it down; and Homer then records how the helmet sits there on the ground, all shiny and motionless, reflecting the light of the sun. The Homeric world, says Finley, is one of brilliant particulars, fixed entities that are what they are, nothing more or less. It is not an especially comforting world, he tells us, but it is at least this: absolutely clear. “Happiness, one sometimes thinks, is clarity of vision, moments when things stand clear in sharpest if revealed for the first time.” He goes on: “However intoxicating the attractions of intellect, and however essential to the structures by which we live, something in us wants also the clear signals of the senses by which alone the world is made fresh and definite.”

This is, I suppose, the world of childhood, made magical by its very realism; and there certainly is something intoxicating about it: the wind in one’s hair, the shock of a cool lake on a warm summer’s day, the dry texture of an autumn leaf. Yet Finley uses the word “intoxicating” not to refer to the world of sensual immediacy, but to that of the intellect, which has its own siren song. Once we enter the world of Socrates and Plato, and the “sunlit tangibility of the fourth century” (fine phrase, that), there is no going back. The experience of rationality, of conceptual clarity, is so overwhelming that once “infected,” the mind will settle for nothing less. When Archimedes (allegedly) cried “Eureka ” in his bathtub, his excitement was over having discovered a pattern (in this case, the law of specific gravity), not over the sensual impact of the water on his skin.

This issue of pattern is the key to the phenomenon of intellectual intoxication, and probably first occurs, in a formal sense, in the work of Plato. “Noetic” understanding, the job of the philosopher-king, moves along a vertical line, upwards toward the gods. Indeed, it is widely accepted that this vertical model is based on the shamanic or revealed knowledge of the Mystery Religions that were popular in ancient Greece. One application of it can be seen in Plato’s Republic, in the famous “parable of the cave,” in which people sit with their backs to the light and take the shadows cast on the wall for reality. Such individuals are asleep, says Plato, whereas the true philosopher, the one who is awake, turns to the light, the actual source of the perceived phenomena. What you see, then, is not what you get; real knowledge requires this type of “vertical” understanding, this digging beneath the surface. It is not for nothing that Freud compared his own analytical method to the science of archaeology. (Indeed, Heinrich Schliemann was digging up the ruins of Troy during Freud’s lifetime.) What is on the surface, for Freud, is social behavior; what lies underneath this is repressed sexuality (hence the title of one of his most famous books, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life). In the case of Marx, the surface consists of class relations; the reality, the underlying pattern, is the mode of production of a society at any given stage in its history. For Gassendi, Descartes, and Newton, gross objects were mere appearances; the reality was atomic particles. A sunset may be beautiful, but the “truth” of the situation is refracted light. And so on. Cognition of this sort can hit you with the force of a hurricane.

The alternative mode of knowing is more “horizontal”: what you see is what you get. Or as Wittgenstein once put it, “depths are on the surface.” The whole phenomenological school–I am thinking of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty in particular–argues for direct physical experience as the key to the world (the sun gleaming off of Hector’s helmet, for example). The power of this type of understanding derives from the sheer “is-ness” of things, their pure ontology. To “know” a sunset as refracted light may be to not know it at all.

My oldest friend and I discovered, soon after we met, that we shared the same dilemma: we were torn between these two worlds. Both of them were intoxicating, in their own special way; so much so that we found it impossible to give either of them up. His solution was to create two separate, consecutive lives. Thus he spent three decades as a professional scientist, after which he retired to devote himself to photography, yoga, and jazz piano. My solution was to try to bring the two worlds together, and it cost me dearly. No university department could figure out what the hell I was doing, and typically regarded my writing as weird. In a culture severely split between mind and body, I could only be regarded as some sort of “cult figure,” at best. And really, what else could I expect? If you are going to insist that the dominant culture is ontologically crippled, it is not likely that that culture is going to stand up and cheer.

Reading Finley, in any case, provided me with a keen sense of validation, because he doesn’t end his analysis with a description of the two worlds and leave it at that. The “character of a great age,” he writes, is when the two worlds come together, and when, as a result, “meanings seem within people’s reach.” According to him, this unity found its greatest expression in Greece in the fifth century B.C., somewhere between Homer and Aristotle:

"Part of the grip on the imagination that fifth-century Athens
never ceases to hold is that these two kinds of worlds met
then, the former culminating as the latter came into being.
Aeschylus and Sophocles spoke for the older outlook that
saw things through shape; Socrates and Thucydides for the
nascent mind that saw them through idea."

It seems unlikely that we shall ever have such an age again, though who knows what the world will be like five hundred years hence. For now, at least, the integration of mind and body will probably remain a private experience: the intellect that feels, the sensuality that thinks. But ultimately, the commitment of the writer, or of anyone invested in the world of letters, the larger culture, cannot be restricted to individual experience, for solipsism is not an answer to anything. Putting meaning “within people’s reach” is finally what it is all about.

©Morris Berman, 2009


Blogger WCS Minor Circuit said...

Many people (hell, most of 'em) probably aren't aware of the existence of these "two worlds", especially in a society where the "I'm right, you're wrong" mentality is so prevalent.

This post put me in the mood to read "Dark Ages America" again, so thank you for writing both.

2:40 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

Professor Berman,

I'm a long-time admirer, first-time commenter. I feel as if I have much to say to you, but I'll try to keep it brief as per your commenting policy.

The duality you describe has been very much on my mind for a number of months now, in the context of my work producing and performing my music video social critique "Thus Spoke The Spectacle."

I sense that your attempt to "bring the two worlds together, costing you dearly" is similar to my own experience as I struggle with my own costs for doing the kind of work I do; work that I hope might be considered in the "new monastic individual" tradition. You entered my life nearly ten years ago through "The Twilight of American Culture." I reread the book last week with a profound sense of how much of what you said in there influenced my journey over the past decade.

I was planning on writing in at some point to thank you for this, and suddenly find right now irresistibly opportune for two reasons. First, I was just informed that my copy of "Dark Ages America" has arrived at Barnes and Noble, so I'll be picking that up later today. And then I read your "Ways of Knowing" post, and felt a real sense of synergy. Especially satisfying is the irony of you talking about your own "life-changing" book when your "Twilight" qualifies as one for me, helping me as it did to make some difficult decisions in choosing the path less taken.

Thanks for the inspiration you've provided and for your excellent and courageous work in the face of the darkness around us.

Eric Goodman
Thus Spoke The Spectacle

2:46 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear WCS and Eric,

Many thanks for writing. Yes, these two worlds are a minor concern in a nation that is so dumb it doesn't have a clue as to how dumb it is. Obviously, citing Finley and the Iliad is an echo from a bygone era, when (some) Americans were aware of issues like these, cared about them, and didn't constitute .0001% of the population. When the Secretary of Defense wouldn't view the destruction of antiquities in Iraq and shrug ("stuff happens"); and when even with a high IQ, he wouldn't also be a moron (and a war criminal). Welcome to The End of Days.

But there is a tiny handful that can motivate or inspire one another, and I'm grateful that I have that much in my life.

The best to you both-


6:07 PM  
Anonymous Art said...

"...reality, truth, accepting it all; but then-- intense, passionate dreams about extraordinary cities, a world where people live in harmony." --Wallace Shawn

Does Buddhism, and other related ways of knowing, turn Plato's cave on it's head? And yet, it seems only natural to dream of a more beautiful world.

To put it another way, perhaps: is "waking up" simply to recognize that one is dreaming? Is this one way of understanding what it means to inhabit the two worlds at the same time?

8:32 PM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

Thank you for this lovely & moving post.

What strikes me about the steady decline of our culture is the denigration & loss of these "two worlds." The ferocious anti-intellectualism of so many Americans is matched only by their philistinism. They speak of "culture wars" but don't seem to have much to offer in the way of culture themselves.

Can a society die from a lack of beauty, both sensual & intellectual? I think so. Certainly rigid, authoritarian regimes of every ideological stripe seem to substitute kitsch for art. And of course they all rail against "elitism" & rationality.

While both social & political action still seem worthwhile, if often futile, perhaps we might have a greater long-term effect by encouraging someone to read a classic novel, or appreciate great music or art. More than anything, America currently seems afraid of uncomfortable depths.

Again, thanks for for this blog. It's indeed a beacon in these dark times!

11:23 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Tim,

As Theodore Roethke put it, "In a dark time, the eye begins to see" (or something like that).


1:35 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

Tim asks: "Can a society die from a lack of beauty, both sensual & intellectual?"

I don't know, probably; but I've always been intrigued by the converse, Dostoyevsky's quip that "beauty will save the world." Alexander Solzhenitsyn
 ponders this in his Nobel Lecture from 1970.

4:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Morris Berman,
Like Eric, I am a first time poster-long time admirer. I don't flatter often so enjoy the revelry.
I have been following your work for awhile, most recently devouring "The Reenchantment of the World."
About 5 years ago I read your book “Coming to Our Senses” and like yourself with Finley it was a book that had a major impact on my life. This was not a book that fell onto my lap, in fact I stumbled across it in a coffee shop in James Bay, read the first chapter and decided with to buy it. It articulates what I have felt succinctly, and I thank you for that.

8:44 PM  
Anonymous Peter said...

A beautiful and thoughtful essay, Professor. I found it interesting, in the context of seminal books, your mention of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. I first came across their writings in David Abram's "'The Spell of the Sensuous", which remains for me a book that has taken me down many enriching paths....

Another which speaks very profoundly to the dichotomy you speak of, is James M. Corrigan's "An Introduction to Awareness". With great clarity and intellectual rigor, he uses language to take us beyond abstraction and illusion, into the ineffable realm of Awareness. To quote briefly from his conclusion:
"The greatest danger facing humanity today, I believe, is the application of the idea of Mechanism as an explanatory device for all of reality and especially of Human life. By focusing in this way on the natural unfolding of existence and treating it as if it were nothing more than the progression from one steady state of a purely mechanical process to another steady state, we are robbing ourselves of that which makes our lives the precious opportunity for our full development as living, knowing-beings - our experience of this unfolding and the power that each of us has to make our way in the world, and through that, to come to an understanding about the source of all that we experience, including that which is most intimate for us- our selves.....We are faced with a terrible challenge today. We must rebuild both our spirit and our society. And we must do so in such a way as to support each individual - in their uniqueness - in finding their place in the wholeness of reality."

Well, much more could be quoted; see his site for more of his lucid insights; I look forward to musing on this post in the days to come, Morris, and appreciate your efforts

11:30 PM  

Querido Mauricio:

Very happy to see what you’re into, seems poetry in San Francisco awoke a strong memory that I’m glad you’re sharing with us, hope you had a good time and nice experiences up there. I guess Finley’s book is to you, what your books to me, his four stages are your four cultures that have given me surprising elements to heuristically play without many conclusions, but rather grow a feeling I’m in something real (not important or transcendent but real). What can be better than that?

"In a dark time, the eye begins to see" sounds like a great paradox, but I believe this has it’s logic. I believe (in your words) that idea some how anticipates shape, reducing raw sensations into functional matter so it can fit in the pattern, and be saved in some way. I believe this light that anticipates is the infection, and dark times metaphorically mitigate this “virus” permitting us see the real purpose of the system (just an instrument that will never solve our existence). That’s why “the show must go on”, it can’t stop. But in decadence it is inevitable, and turns into the key that just doesn´t work anymore, Noe’s arc that sinks anyway, salvation as a vision that never comes, but still leads an eternal exodus that never ends.

I’ve realized the obsession for conceptual clarity is a need for surviving in the abstract world (cities) and not living in the world. The sensual and direct impact is personal, but a pattern is useful for taking position and control in a certain paradigm, “taking the wheel” (timón in spanish), like Plato’s Timaeus towards salvation (once “gods” and now “goods”). But the prize has a cost, opposite to what Prometheus had to pay (great myth of repression). I feel living has become surviving, but a surviving that is not a reaction of fear, but an illusion of salvation, a revealing ontology of social acceptance and the need of producing to be a part of it, hopefully the best part in it. I now know the new I knew is somehow crippled (as you wisely say), hard thing to assume, but everyday I’m in that, trying to feel and see the real in the dark. Thank you for everything amigo mio, really.

10:33 AM  
Blogger Rochelle Cashdan said...

The figure of 8% majoring in the liberal arts in the US today parallels what I am seeing in Mexico and I regret it happening anywhere. But I wish indigenous verbal skills and traditions received the respect they deserve. I'm glad to be literate, but aliteracy has gotten a bad rap. (That's not a typo)

12:01 AM  
Anonymous Kevin said...

"I'm glad to be literate, but aliteracy has gotten a bad rap."

Julien Gracq once wrote the following (paraphrased from memory):

"Literature was the last of the arts to make its appearance. It will be the first of the arts to disappear".

So, don't worry: Aliteracy soon will not only cease to get a "bad rap"; it will be a badge of honor. Perhaps it is, already.

5:57 PM  
Anonymous James M said...


I have to confess I'm no night owl. I live in Australia. Right now it's 13:40 Monday lunchtime and I needded something to lift my spirit and stimulate my mind so I went to you blog to see if you had replied to my comment and you had, thank you.

On the subject of 'ways of knowning'- I have a sketchy memory of reading Bhagwhan Rajneesh talk about how the Christian cross sympolises the awakening of consciousness through the converging of these two 'ways of knowing'. Can't quite remember exactly what he said about it, but it seems to be the same thing you are talking about. I don't know the history of the cross. Does the cross it have anything to do with these 'ways of knowing' Or was Bhagwan just using it as a metaphor?

9:41 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


I have no idea what the great Bhagwan was referring to, but to be honest, finding myself in the same paragraph as that con artist has to be one of the most depressing events of my life! (no offense)


11:44 PM  
Anonymous Rochelle said...

By aliteracy, I meant the state of being where the spoken word is valued as at least equal to written language. If literature includes oral literature and drama, it may not be the first to disappear. My own view is that equating literacy with good judgment has contributed to keeping the less "educated" classes down. To take this further, every society whether mainly literate or not has its specialists in the word.

7:12 PM  

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