Sunday, September 14, 2008

Nominalists vs. Realists.

Yesterday, thinking about a review I'd read of Philip Ball's recent "Universe of Stone: A Biography of Chartres Cathedral," I took down my college paperback of Henry Adams' "Mont Saint-Michel & Chartres." The early-60s Mentor edition had but four Bettmann Archive photos in b&w, so there wasn't much visual corroboration for the edifice's magnificence as expressed in Adams' soaring prose. I'm also making my gradual way through Lawrence Sutin's "All Is Change: The Two-Thousand Year of Buddhism to the West." I'll post about this in due time here. For now, a quick mention that such as Schopenhauer and Heidegger have borrowed-- to put it politely in the latter's case-- much from the nothingness that they perceive emanating from the East. This in turn floats into the controversy that embroiled philosophers during the Gothic era.

When I studied Adams' text as part of my undergrad seminar in Medieval Thought, I sympathized with the realists. They followed Platonic conceptions, to simplify greatly, that posited forms that in "reality" existed beyond our representation of them in language, creation, or conception. Their opponents, nominalists, insisted that "names" themselves represented what we could know of truth, and that we were limited by these symbols-- which marked as far as humans could investigate. Obviously, for the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, this latter position skirted heresy.

I also took a course in medieval philosophy, and contrary to my expectations, found myself siding more with Augustine's Platonic parallels rather than Thomistic Aristotelian assertions. I guess I long for a metaphysical realm where all comes true that on earth we can only imagine. My lack of ability to follow such rarified cogitation further, like my current musings about my chances of actually learning chess, make me ill-equipped to weigh in further on such intellectual exertions.

But, a week late this morning, I opened the Sept. 7th 2008 Los Angeles Times Book Review to find Laura Miller's rather erudite response to Neal Stephenson's novel, "Anathem." Maybe I'll have to take on another nine-hundred page idea-filled ramble, after DeLillo's "Underworld," Alexander Theroux's "Laura Warholic," and the one I've barely started, Nicola Barker's "Darklands." (I never bothered with David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest" despite my love of footnotes and "Hamlet." DFW hung himself out in Claremont the other day, despite the genius grant and the Pomona College plum position. Arrogant, probably, and a tennis brat spawned by academics in Normal, Illinois. Still, surely a sad story we may never understand. He's a year younger than me-- but he somehow marketed himself as the erudite voice of the Gen X slacker generation. Like Obama.) It sounds as if "Anathem" takes on the realists and nominalists all over again. Sort of.

A few of the better class of computer geeks whom I teach have admired Stephenson's "Snow Crash" & "Cryptonomicon." I have little patience for such giant "what if?" exegeses unless their autodidacts resemble in their obsessions my own scattered muses. Which proves rare. Physics for poets-levels of science challenge me more than even the most OED-addled humanist. Don't mention math. Perhaps, this latest volume by Stephenson may sway me. Here's the heart of Miller's summation.

The world of "Anathem" is an alternate version of our own, a not unfamiliar science-fiction premise. Here, though, the disparities assume a pointed significance as the story unfolds.

The narrator, Fraa Erasmas, belongs to a "math," a community of scholars and thinkers who live like monks, sequestered from the distractions and corruption of the "Saecular" world.

Yet as much as the maths resemble monastic orders (down to their ascetic way of life and many rituals), the members, or "avout," mostly don't believe in God. Instead, they are committed to "theorics," a collection of disciplines "[r]oughly equivalent to mathematics, logic, science, and philosophy on Earth." (That last quote is from the glossary at the back of "Anathem," very handy when reading the first few chapters of the book.)

Forbidden within the maths are most forms of advanced technology; as the novel gradually discloses, this taboo is the result of an ancient agreement with Saecular authorities, intended to slow technological change to a rate at which it can be, as one character puts it, "understood, managed, controlled." A few maths, called Millenarians, have gone so far in embracing this ethos of exclusion that they only open their gates once every thousand years and are otherwise cut off from the world.

Inside the cloisters, avouts pursue theoretical physics, mathematics and astronomy; outside, the largely aliterate society gorges itself on movies, junk food and abundant supplies of genetically engineered mood-enhancing drugs, as well as politics, cellphone/Blackberry devices called (delightfully) "jeejahs" and religion. The Saecular world regards the maths -- especially the mysterious Millenarians -- with varying degrees of suspicion, curiosity and awe. (Erasmas, our narrator, is only a garden-variety Decenarian, which means his math holds an open house every 10 years.)

On his acknowledgments page, Stephenson describes "Anathem" as "a fictional framework for exploring ideas that have sprung from the minds of great thinkers of Earth's past and present." At the heart of this exploration is a conflict between two major strands of Western thought that, in recent years, correspond to analytic and continental philosophy. Is philosophy primarily a matter of language and the working out of a consistent structure of reasoning about data that we experience directly, with our senses? Or are there fundamental truths accessible only through philosophy and the highest modes of thought?

Is the number 2, in other words, no more than a conceptual tool, a product of the human mind? Or is the 2 we know merely the shadow of an ideal reality that we perceive through a glass, and darkly? To judge by "Anathem," Stephenson comes down on the side of the latter, which makes him something of a Platonist, a believer in a transcendent reality, and an adherent to a position intellectually out of fashion in the humanities departments of most Western universities.

This may not sound like the stuff of compelling fiction, and the fact that the characters in "Anathem" occasionally engage in Socratic-style dialogues on these (and related) topics might scare some readers off. But that would be a mistake. Stephenson has done something remarkable in this novel, which is to make the resolution of a venerable philosophical debate essential to the unfolding of his story.

Fraa Erasmas and his mathic colleagues are "evoked" (that is, called forth from the math by the Saecular authorities) when their world faces an unprecedented crisis requiring their expertise. One solution may lie in cryptic hints left behind by a beloved, exiled teacher. The avouts' conversations about geometry and quantum states aren't intellectual detours from a perfunctory plot; they are one of the forms the story takes. "Anathem" turns what often seem like airless, abstract debates into matters of life and death. In order to save the world it becomes crucial to determine what the world really is.

I bold-faced the parallels to nominalists & realists. Miller places them within analytical vs. continental philosophy. I might add for those in search of novels of ideas Bruce Duffy's "The World As I Found It." It tells of Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and their attempts in England to stretch the bounds of education-- both of the young and the elite-- and also features a stunning section placed in the German trenches within which Wittgenstein fought. For me, whose sum total of what I learned about that philosopher in grad school (admittedly in English lit) was that he slept on a cot and ate powdered eggs, this novel illuminated much before, during, and after the Great War.

Layne rented from the video store, of all things, Frederic Raphael's undoubtably autobiographical "Glittering Prizes," a 1976 miniseries based on his novel. Low budget in that way that so many BBC TV shows look, as if on two stage sets with two cameras and bad wigs, but I can pretend vicariously that I lived in the fusty digs. Strangely, no classroom scenes at all! It starts about half a century after Russell and Wittgenstein would have made Cambridge the powerhouse of analysis that it became.

Apropos, Miller continues:
"Anathem" is also a campus novel, a counterpoint to Stephenson's little-known debut, "The Big U." Despite their "bolts" (habits) and quasi-liturgical chanting, the avouts are in essence graduate students, and the maths resemble nothing so much as idealized universities, in which knowledge is doggedly pursued for its own sake in defiance of a hedonistic, utilitarian society with a vanishingly small attention span.

The book even features its own version of postmodernism and the culture wars; "Anathem" gleefully exacts the physics majors' revenge on the slippery relativists who often run circles around them in faculty lounges and coffee shops. If the good guys believe in something called the Hylaean Theoric World (the equivalent of Plato's forms), their opponents are treacherous, media-savvy sophists who say things like, "language, communication, indeed thought itself, are the manipulation of symbols to which meaning are assigned by culture -- and only by culture."

Perhaps we neo-Platonists still have a chance? Those who control the MLAs and APAs of the professoriat certainly reign. They harangue about the force of the material, and denigrate the spiritual. They charge us humanists who waver towards transcendence as if we're deluded at best, idiots most likely. As if users of symbols as witless as babies with alphabet blocks. Yet, by manipulating, infants learn, adults wonder. And, once in a while, we perceive, dimly, a greater truth's radiance. Here, surely Caltech emeritus and Carthusian recluse may agree? It may be the number 2, the chess move, the poetic simile, the theological supposition, the genetic code. Why do we murder to dissect? I wish more believers took on astronomy or oncology. Do many physicists cite Yeats or Blake? My career-oriented, focused majors will never have the chance to hear in their curriculum the thoughts of Plato or Peirce. What if scientists studied the Tibetan Book of the Dead or Tao Te Ching?

Stephenson, along with physicist David Bohm (about whom I responded in yesterday's post's comments to "Harry") or Bohm's admirer Sogyal Rinpoche, may prove a harbinger of our millennium's attempts to conceive of a Grand Unified Theory where mysticism merges with mathematics. We aliterati might stop gorging on "jeejahs" and religion! Here, realists and nominalists could cease their bickering, and analytics and continentals may embrace. Maybe our children will welcome the primer which will answer the longings of Richard Dawkins as well as the Dalai Lama? Akin to Arthur C. Clarke's "Childhood's End" dramatizing Teilhard de Chardin's noosphere for sophisticates and scholars ten decades later, perhaps?

P.S.: LA Times profile on NS & new novel.
P.P.S.: Original review, with links to reviews from LAT, WSJ, NY Post, Wash Post, links to interviews and other NS sites, with excerpts:
The Complete Review: "Anathem."

Image: Not easy to find matches for "Nominalist Realist"--- Krazy Kat . From James Lawler, a linguistics prof at the U. of Michigan.

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