The Next Great Discontinuity

Part One: Grapholectic Thought and the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness

by Daniel Rourke

“There are things,” Christoph Martin Wieland… contended, “which by their very nature are so dependent upon human caprice that they either exist or do not exist as soon as we desire that they should or should not exist.”

…We are, at the very least, reminded that seeing is a talent that needs to be cultivated, as John Berger saliently argued in his popular Ways of Seeing (1972) “…perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world.”

John A. Mccarthy, Remapping Reality

From the Greco-Roman period onwards humans have perceived themselves at the centre of a grand circle:


  • The circle is physical: a heliocentric vision of the cosmos, where the Earth travels around the sun.

  • The circle is biological: an order of nature, perhaps orchestrated by a benign creator, where the animals and plants exist to satisfy the needs of mankind.

  • And according to Sigmund Freud, in his Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, the circle is psychological: where a central engine of reason rules over the chaos of passion and emotion.

The history of science maintains that progress – should one be comfortable in using such a term – contracted these perceptual loops. Indeed it was Freud himself, (the modest pivot of his own solar-system) who suggested that through the Copernican, Darwinian and Freudian “revolutions” mankind had transcended these “three great discontinuities” of thought and, “[uttered a] call to introspection”.

If one were to speculate on the “great discontinuities” that followed, one might consider Albert Einstein’s relativistic model of space-time, or perhaps the work carried out by many “introspective” minds on quantum theory. Our position at the centre of the cosmos was offset by Copernicus; our position as a special kind of creature was demolished by Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. From Freud we inherited the capacity to see beneath the freedom of the individual; from Einstein and quantum theory we learnt to mistrust the mechanistic clock of space and time. From all we learnt, as John Berger so succinctly put it, that “…perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world.”

Of course my mini-history of scientific revolution should not be taken itself as a “truth”. I draw it as a parable of progress, as one silken thread leading back through time’s circular labyrinth to my very own Ariadne. What I do maintain though, is that all great moves in human thought have come at the expense of a perceptual circle. That, if science, sociology, economics – or any modern system of knowledge – is to move beyond the constraints of its circle it must first decentre the “single eye”.

Scientific rational inquiry has revelled in the overturning of these “great discontinuities”, positioning each of them as a plotted point on the graph we understand as “progress”. We maintain, without any hint of irony, that we exist at the pinnacle of this irreversible line of diachronic time, that the further up the line we climb, the closer to “truth” we ascend.

“…Reason is statistically distributed everywhere; no one can claim exclusive rights to it. [A] division… is [thus] echoed in the image, in the imaginary picture that one makes of time. Instead of condemning or excluding, one consigns a certain thing to antiquity, to archaism. One no longer says “false” but, rather, “out of date,” or “obsolete.” In earlier times people dreamed; now we think. Once people sang poetry; today we experiment efficiently. History is thus the projection of this very real exclusion into an imaginary, even imperialistic time. The temporal rupture is the equivalent of a dogmatic expulsion.”

Michel Serres, Conversations on Science, Culture and Time

Orthographic-ProjectionAccording to Michel Serres “time” is the common misconception that pollutes all our models. In the scientific tradition knowledge is located at the present: a summation of all inquiry that has lead up to this point. This notion is extraordinarily powerful in its reasoning power, bringing all previous data together in one great cataclysm of meaning. It has spawned its own species of cliché, the type where science ‘landed us on the moon’ or ‘was responsible for the extinction of smallpox’ or ‘increased the life expectancy of the third world’. These types of truths are necessary – you will not find me arguing against that – but they are also only one notion of what “truth” amounts to. And it is here perhaps where the circumference of yet another perceptual circle materialises from out of the mist.

Progress and diachronic time are symbiotically united: the one being incapable of meaningful existence without the other. Our modern notion of “truth” denies all wisdom that cannot be plotted on a graph; that cannot be traced backwards through the recorded evidence or textual archive. Our modern conceptions are, what Walter J. Ong calls, the consequence of a 'grapholectic' culture – that is, one reliant on the technologies of writing and/or print. Science, as we understand it, could not have arisen without a system of memorisation and retrieval that extended beyond the limits of an oral culture. In turn, modern religious practices are as much a consequence of 'the written word' as they are 'the word of God'. The “truth” of science is similar in kind to the “truth” of modern religion. It is the “truth” of the page; of a diachronic, grapholectic culture – a difficult “truth” to swallow for those who maintain that 'dogma' is only a religous vice.

Dialectic cultures – ones which are based in oral traditions – do not consider history and time in the same way as grapholectic cultures. To the dialectic, meaning is reliant on what one can personally or culturally remember, rather than on what the extended memory of the page can hold in storage. Thus the attribution of meaning emerges from the present, synchronic situation, rather than being reliant on the consequences of past observation:

“Some decades ago among the Tiv people of Nigeria the genealogies actually used orally in settling court disputes have been found to diverge considerably from the genealogies carefully recorded in writing by the British forty years earlier (because of the importance then, too, in court disputes). The later Tiv have maintained that they were using the same genealogies as forty years earlier and that the earlier written record was wrong. What had happened was that the later genealogies had been adjusted to the changed social relations among the Tiv: they were the same in that they functioned in the same way to regulate the real world. The integrity of the past was subordinate to the integrity of the present.”

Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy

In the oral culture “truth” must be rooted in systems that are not time-reliant. As Karen Armstrong has oft noted, “a myth was an event which in some sense had happened once, but which also happened all the time.” Before the written tradition was used to brand Religious inclinations onto the page the flavour of myth was understood as its most valuable “truth”, rather than its ingredients. The transcendence of Buddha, of Brahmā or Jesus is a parable of existence, and not a true fact garnered from evidence and passed down in the pages of a book. Meaning is not to be found in final “truths”, but in the questioning of contexts; in the deliberation of what constitutes the circle. If we forget this then we commit, what A. N. Whitehead called, the fallacy of misplaced concreteness:

“This… consists in mistaking the abstract for the concrete. More specifically it involves setting up distinctions which disregard the genuine interconnections of things…. [The] fallacy occurs when one assumes that in expressing the space and time relations of a bit of matter it is unnecessary to say more than that it is present in a specific position in space at a specific time. It is Whitehead's contention that it is absolutely essential to refer to other regions of space and other durations of time… [Another] general illustration of the fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness is… the notion that each real entity is absolutely separate and distinct from every other real entity, and that the qualities of each have no essential relation to the qualities of others.”

A. H. Johnson, Whitehead's Theory of Reality

Our error is to mistake grapholectic thought – thought maintained by writing and print – as the only kind of thought we are capable of.

I predict that the next “great discontinuity” to be uncovered, the one that historians will look back upon as “the biggest shift in our understanding since Einstein”, will emerge not from the traditional laboratory, or from notions computed through the hazy-filters of written memory, but from our very notion of what it is for “events” to become “data” and for that data to become “knowledge”. The circle we now sit at the centre of, is one enclosed by the grapholectic perceptions we rely on to consider the circle in the first place. In order to shift it we will need a new method of transposing events that occur ‘outside’ the circle, into types of knowledge that have value ‘within’ the circle.

This may sound crazy, even impossible in scope, but we may have already begun devising new ways for this kind of knowledge to reach us.

Continued in… Part Two: The Data Deluge

by Daniel Rourke