Sunday, April 21, 2013

Theory vs Practice. Arendt and Lewontin vs. ...

Arendt, from The Human Condition
The chief difference between the Aristotelian and the later medieval use of the term is that the bios politikos denoted explicitly only the realm of human affairs, stressing the action, praxis, needed to establish and sustain it. Neither labor nor work was considered to possess sufficient dignity to constitute a bios at all, an autonomous and authentically human way of life; since they served and produced what was necessary and useful, they could not be free, in- dependent of human needs and wants. That the political way of life escaped this verdict is due to the Greek understanding of polis life, which to them denoted a very special and freely chosen form of political organization and by no means just any form of action necessary to keep men together in an orderly fashion. Not that the Greeks or Aristotle were ignorant of the fact that human life always demands some form of political organization and that rul ing over subjects might constitute a distinct way of life; but the despot's way of life, because it was "merely" a necessity, could not be considered free and had no relationship with the bios politikos

With the disappearance of the ancient city-state—Augustine seems to have been the last to know at least what it once meant to be a citizen—the term vita activa lost its specifically political meaning and denoted all kinds of active engagement in the things of this world. To be sure, it does not follow that work and labor had risen in the hierarchy of human activities and were now equal in dignity with a life devoted to politics.8 It was, rather, the other way round: action was now also reckoned among the necessities of earthly life, so that contemplation (the bios theoutikos, translated into the vita contemplativa) was left as the only truly free way of life.

However, the enormous superiority of contemplation over activity of any kind, action not excluded, is not Christian in origin. We find it in Plato's political philosophy, where the whole Utopian reorganization of polis life is not only directed by the superior insight of the philosopher but has no aim other than to make possible the philosopher's way of life. Aristotle's very articulation of the different ways of life, in whose order the life of pleasure plays a minor role, is clearly guided by the ideal of contemplation (theoria). To the ancient freedom from the necessities of life and from compulsion by others, the philosophers added freedom and surcease from political activity (skhole),10 so that the later Christian claim to be free from entanglement in worldly affairs, from all the business of this world, was preceded by and originated in the philosophic apolitia of late antiquity. What had been demanded only by the few was now considered to be a right of all.

...Traditionally, therefore, the term vita activa receives its meaning from the vita contemplativa; its very restricted dignity is bestowed upon it because it serves the needs and wants of contemplation in a living body. Christianity, with its belief in a hereafter whose joys announce themselves in the delights of contemplation, conferred a religious sanction upon the abasement of the vita activa to its derivative, secondary position; but the determination of the order itself coincided with the very discovery of contemplation (theorid) as a human faculty, distinctly different from thought and reasoning, which occurred in the Socratic school and from then on has ruled metaphysical and political thought throughout our tradition. ...

Eternity versus Immortality

...The task and potential greatness of mortals lie in their ability to produce things—works and deeds and words— which would deserve to be and, at least to a degree, are at home in everlastingness, so that through them mortals could find their place in a cosmos where everything is immortal except themselves. By their capacity for the immortal deed, by their ability to leave non-perishable traces behind, men, their individual mortality notwithstanding, attain an immortality of their own and prove themselves to be of a "divine" nature. The distinction between man and animal runs right through the human species itself: only the best (aristoi), who constantly prove themselves to be the best (aristeuein, a verb for which there is no equivalent in any other language) and who "prefer immortal fame to mortal things," are really human; the others, content with whatever pleasures nature will yield them, live and die like animals. This was still the opinion of Heraclitus, an opinion whose equivalent one will find in hardly any philosopher after Socrates.

In our context it is of no great importance whether Socrates himself or Plato discovered the eternal as the true center of strictly metaphysical thought. It weighs heavily in favor of Socrates that he alone among the great thinkers—unique in this as in many other respects—never cared to write down his thoughts; for it is obvious that, no matter how concerned a thinker may be with eternity, the moment he sits down to write his thoughts he ceases to be concerned primarily with eternity and shifts his attention to leaving some trace of them. He has entered the vita activa and chosen its way of permanence and potential immortality. One thing is certain: it is only in Plato that concern with the eternal and the life of the philosopher are seen as inherently contradictory and in conflict with the striving for immortality, the way of life of the citizen, the bios politikos.

The philosopher's experience of the eternal, which to Plato was arrheton ("unspeakable"), and to Aristotle aneu logon ("without word"), and which later was conceptualized in the paradoxical nunc stans ("the standing now"), can occur only outside the realm of human affairs and outside the plurality of men, as we know from the Cave parable in Plato's Republic, where the philosopher, having liberated himself from the fetters that bound him to his fellow men, leaves the cave in perfect "singularity," as it were, neither accompanied nor followed by others. Politically speaking, if to die is the same as "to cease to be among men," experience of the eternal is a kind of death, and the only thing that separates it from real death is that it is not final because no living creature can endure it for any length of time. And this is precisely what sepa- rates the vita contemplativa from the vita activa in medieval thought.21 Yet it is decisive that the experience of the eternal, in contradistinction to that of the immortal, has no correspondence with and cannot be transformed into any activity whatsoever, since even the activity of thought, which goes on within one's self by means of words, is obviously not only inadequate to render it but would interrupt and ruin the experience itself.

Theoria, or "contemplation," is the word given to the experience of the eternal, as distinguished from all other attitudes, which at most may pertain to immortality. It may be that the philosophers' discovery of the eternal was helped by their very justified doubt of the chances of the polis for immortality or even permanence, and it may be that the shock of this discovery was so overwhelming that they could not but look down upon all striving for immortality as vanity and vainglory, certainly placing themselves thereby into open opposition to the ancient city-state and the religion which inspired it. However, the eventual victory of the concern with eternity over all kinds of aspirations toward immortality is not due to philosophic thought. The fall of the Roman Empire plainly demonstrated that no work of mortal hands can be immortal, and it was accompanied by the rise of the Christian gospel of an ever- lasting individual life to its position as the exclusive religion of Western mankind. Both together made any striving for an earthly immortality futile and unnecessary. And they succeeded so well in making the vita activa and the bios politikos the handmaidens of contemplation that not even the rise of the secular in the modern age and the concomitant reversal of the traditional hierarchy be- tween action and contemplation sufficed to save from oblivion the striving for immortality which originally had been the spring and center of the vita activa.


Lewontin
Bill Wimsatt's "Lewontin's Evidence (that There Isn't Any)" made me think about a lot of questions in my paper. I would like to point out that the rhetoric of this conference has undergone a sudden change. Up until Bill's presentation and mine, everyone read his or her paper. In the tradition to which I belong that would be considered very bad form. That rhetorical difference is a mirror of the differences that I want to talk about. The words that all of the rest of you use are conceived of as being the matter, and so you must choose them carefully, and, therefore, you have to compose your papers and read them. I, on the other hand and perhaps Bill as well, but especialy I, as a natural scientist, am nothing but the oracle of Delphi, sitting here on my stool with eyeballs rolled upwards, and through me Nature speaks. That explains, in my view, the difference in rhetorical tradition between a meeting like this and the ones at which I spend my time. No one in my tradition believes that the words are very important. After all, if I misspeak someone else will say the right thing because we are both talking about the same things and ultimately the gods will speak through us. So words are not the matter. It is extremely important to understand the origin of that difference in rhetorical tradition because it represents a very great difference in what scientists believe to be the nature of evidence in natural science. A conference on the questions of evidence is really a conference on the questions of theory and metatheory. We cannot begin to talk about the evidence until we talk about what it is we are trying to produce evidence of. And the very method which we use is itself a form of evidence.
more later 

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