Fragments: “Hoist with’s own petard,” Science & Dynamite

A. N. Whitehead’s characterisation of the Romantic reaction to the eighteenth century presents the former as an implicit spiritual impulse in European humanity that arose to complement the latter’s hyper-rationality. The Romantic reaction impelled thinkers to balance this intellectualised approach to nature with an aesthetic one. Such quotes by the German Romantic poet Novalis as:

Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason….

The world must be romanticized. Only in that way will one rediscover its original senses. Romanticization is nothing less than a qualitative raising of the power of a thing . . . I romanticize something when I give the commonplace a higher meaning, the known the dignity of the unknown, and the finite the appearance of the infinite….

To romanticize the world is to make us aware of the magic, mystery and wonder of the world; it is to educate the senses to see the ordinary as extraordinary, the familiar as strange, the mundane as sacred, the finite as infinite.

present the essential vein of the Romantic reaction.

The advance of science since the Renaissance had come largely at the expense of ignoring a large part of reality. Science concerned itself exclusively with “primary qualities,” which is really to say, “quantities,” while essentially rejecting all other aspects, many of which present themselves with far greater immediacy to human experience than those which institutionalised science elected to grant exclusive ontological recognition. Such an election was rationalised by branding the discarded aspects of reality with the disparaging appellation of “secondary qualities” and asserting that they do not constitute reality at all, but represent rather mere accidents of human sensory and psychic organisation. Thus, conventional science awarded ontological privilege to number, measure, and weight while relegating color, sound, taste, and smell, for instance, to the dustbin of human subjectivity. That we do not regard this distinction as nonsense today is a testament to the power of intellectual inheritance. That we conceive of ourselves as material bodies amongst other material bodies obtains today as a fact of preëminent salience in our ordinary experience presents an exemplary demonstration of how reality is always the product of reality-izing—how “to philosophise about Nature is to create Nature,” as Friedrich Joseph Schelling so admirably expressed this fact. An understanding of this relationship ought to galvanise us to perform this task in the mood of highest conscience.

Naturally, the brief points that the paragraph above introduced could (and to some degree, have) occupied entire schools of philosophy. For this reason one can hardly hope to do any more than to provide the most brief and cursory sketch of these questions in a consideration like this. Nevertheless, when Whitehead speaks of an “enfeeblement of thought” that characterises the intellectual culture of the modern West, he means to indicate precisely this philosophical schizophrenia which could, for instance, speak of “inalienable rights” (i.e. as in Ye Declaration of Independence) of a human being while flatly denying the existence of reality beyond deterministic matter, or proudly undertake the ideal of practicing “psychology without a soul” as though this were a reasonable method for the study of the human condition. The problem is that, in adopting any philosophical position whatsoever, one does so by means of spiritual faculties to which a materialistic world-conception must deny reality—What is a world-conception made of?

What is the substance of thought, not to mention meaning, values, morality, etc…?

Thus, to assert that only what is measurable is real as per scientific materialism is to saw off one’s own branch, or as Hamlet so memorably enunciated such a principle:

Thus is the Engineer

Hoist with’s own petard


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