Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The first two pages from Iconography and Iconology: An Introduction to the Study of Renaissance Art, by Panofsky. In Meaning in the Visual Arts. Originally published as Introductory in Studies in Iconology
"When an acquaintance greets me on the street by lifting his hat, what I see from a formal point of view is nothing but the change of certain details within a configuration forming part of the general pattern of color, lines and volumes which constitutes my world of vision. When I identify, as I automatically do, this configuration as an object (gentleman), and the change of detail as an event (hatlifting), I have already overstepped the limits of purely formal perception and entered a first sphere of subject matter or meaning. The meaning thus perceived is of an elementary and easily understandable nature. and we shall call it the factual meaning; it is apprehended by simply identifying certain visible forms with certain objects known to me from practical experience and by identifying the change in their relations with certain action or events

Now the objects and events thus identified will naturally produce a certain reaction within myself. From the way my acquaintance performs his action I may be able to sense whether he is in a good or bad humor and whether his feelings towards me are indifferent, friendly or hostile. These psychological nuances will invest the gestures of my acquaintance with a further meaning which we shall call expressional. It differs from the factual one in that it is apprehended, not by simple identification, but by "empathy". To understand it, I need a certain sensitivity, but this sensitivity is still part of my practical experience that is, of my everyday familiarity with objects and events. Therefore both the factual and the expressional meaning may be classified together: they constitute the class of primary or natural meanings."
"...a certain sensitivity, but this sensitivity is still part of my practical experience that is, of my everyday familiarity with objects and events."
Panofsky should be required reading for anyone in the social sciences, but I haven't met one academic in 20 years whom I could trust to understand the basic premises of humanism as described in those paragraphs. The vast majority of people take such questions for granted, without articulating them. We know this because they spend so much time and money watching and listening to others who do so: in music, movies and verbal fiction. But many who spend their lives in the academy think they're irrelevant to higher learning, an indulgence, or at worst an invitation to unreason.
And finally: besides constituting a natural event in space and time, naturally indicating moods or feelings, besides conveying a conventional greeting the action of my acquaintance can reveal to an experienced observer all that goes to make up his "personality." This personality is conditioned by his being a man of the twentieth century, by his national. social and educational background by the previous history of his life and by his present surroundings but it is also distinguished by an individual manner of viewing things and reacting to the world which, if rationalized, would have to be called a philosophy. In the isolated action of a polite greeting all these factors do not manifest themselves comprehensively, but nevertheless symptomatically. We could not construct a mental portrait of the man on the basis of this single action. but only by coordinating a large number of similar observations and by interpreting them in connection with our general information as to his period. nationality, class. intellectual traditions and so forth. Yet all the qualities which this mental portrait would show explicitly are implicitly inherent in every single action; so that. conversely every single action can be interpreted in the light of those qualities.
The panicked fear of subjectivity results in the inability to acknowledge its presence. Realism is not the assumption of "rational action." It is the attempt to examine rationally the irrationality of others so that one may respond to it and recognize it in oneself.

Economics as a humanist endeavor is the study of the weakness and frailty of the human imagination. As a "science" it becomes a celebration of the human capacity for reason, the reason of the "scientific" observer. Reason trumps observation, leaving the world behind, and returning to it as a series of diktats. Read economics as synecdoche for the social sciences. You can't will away the conflict, but the modern academy is dedicated to trying.

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