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Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Englightenment Delusion


Pray what was that man’s name,–for I write in such a hurry, I have no time to recollect or look for it,–who first made the observation, “That there was great inconstancy in our air and climate?” Whoever he was, ’twas a just and good observation in him.–But the corollary drawn from it, namely, “That it is this which has furnished us with such a variety of odd and whimsical characters;”–that was not his;–it was found out by another man, at least a century and a half after him: Then again,–that this copious store-house of original materials, is the true and natural cause that our Comedies are so much better than those of France, or any others that either have, or can be wrote upon the Continent:–that discovery was not fully made till about the middle of King William’s reign,–when the great Dryden, in writing one of his long prefaces, (if I mistake not) most fortunately hit upon it. Indeed toward the latter end of queen Anne, the great Addison began to patronize the notion, and more fully explained it to the world in one or two of his Spectators;–but the discovery was not his.–Then, fourthly and lastly, that this strange irregularity in our climate, producing so strange an irregularity in our characters,–doth thereby, in some sort, make us amends, by giving us somewhat to make us merry with when the weather will not suffer us to go out of doors,–that observation is my own;–and was struck out by me this very rainy day, March 26, 1759, and betwixt the hours of nine and ten in the morning.                                                               --Lawrence Stern, Tristram Shandy Ch XXI

 

Our narrator seems to have both (and paradoxically) an obsessive and a cavalier attitude regarding the origin of certain historically significant observations—observation which we (or at least he) could call emerging truths. Stern is both observing and mocking the new state of emerging knowledge, this Enlightenment sally into the territory formerly held by ignorance in which each new truth stakes its claim under the authorial flag of its discoverer. It may be only the role of ego in conquest that is being mocked here, but it may also be that Sterne understood that the enterprise itself, even in the early days of its success, was not precisely what it took itself to be. In Stern’s time, it was widely believed that progress in knowledge, wherever it was made, genuinely shrunk the territory of ignorance and that continued advances in the realm of knowledge would, eventually, eliminate the territory of ignorance altogether.

Two and a half centuries later, that claim feels quaint. Just as each scientific instrument designed to shrink the universe—from the first hand-held telescope to massive  infrared, radio contraptions we now have—have only served to make the universe bigger and bigger until its size, at one point merely unimaginable—has become yet one unimaginabilty nested inside or perhaps bumping along side an infinite number of other equally infinite spaces, so our conquest of knowledge in general has served only to increase our ignorance—or, more precisely our knowledge of our ignorance. We know both more and far far less than we ever did.  

I say we used to plant our flags on every new tidbit of truth conquered by understanding. But that’s not quite true. We still do it. Our attitude has not kept up with our experience or our observations. As we are becoming increasingly ignorant, as our only real knowledge is the ever growing knowledge of our ever growing ignorance we fail to adjust or attitude the realization that what we already don’t know has accumulated to the point where we can reasonably surmise that there is a vast territory of reality we can never subsume to knowledge.

And this is where we started before the blip of the enlightenment delusion.

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