Through a Glass, Darkly

by Jerry Cayford

The topic today is misinformation and knowledge, conspiracy theory and evidence, not biblical exegesis. When Saint Paul tells the Corinthians, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12), he is contrasting partial, human knowing with the perfect knowing that will come when we reunite with God. He is not dissing human knowledge, and yet one detects an unmistakable yearning for that better sort of knowledge.

These two kinds of knowledge express two different philosophical theories of truth. When the Scientific Revolution came along some sixteen hundred years after Paul wrote, people had had enough of this “through a glass darkly” stuff and decided it was time to move on to seeing reality “face to face.” That moving on, though, never quite left the dark mirrors behind, and we are living today through an acute conflict between these theories.

Today, we are at another moment of historic transition, with the atomic bomb behind us and artificial intelligence ahead. In writing about our moment, I will do a bit of philosophy and some intellectual history—about as quick and dirty as you saw in the previous paragraph—through the lens of three pieces by New York Times columnists (you don’t need to read them). All three discuss conspiracy theories and how to confront them. We will find our two competing theories of truth between the lines. Seeing them in action can illuminate our moment, and maybe the path ahead.

The first column, by Farhad Manjoo, explains why it is pointless or even counterproductive to argue with conspiracy theorists like Robert Kennedy Jr. The rebuttal to Manjoo by Ross Douthat explains that the alternatives to arguing are far worse. The third, by Paul Krugman, explains how to argue. I think the three together are instructive about how we can know things, even when we never confront reality face to face but see everything through a glass, darkly. Read more »

The continuing relevance of Immanuel Kant

by Emrys Westacott


Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is widely touted as one of the greatest thinkers in the history of Western civilization. Yet few people other than academic philosophers read his works, and I imagine that only a minority of them have read in its entirety the Critique of Pure Reason, generally considered his magnum opus. Kantian scholarship flourishes, with specialized journals and Kant societies in several countries, but it is largely written by and for specialists interested in exploring subtleties and complexities in Kant's texts, unnoticed influences on his thought, and so on. Some of Kant's writing is notoriously difficult to penetrate, which is why we need scholars to interpret his texts for us, and also why, in two hundred years, he has never made it onto the New York Times best seller list. And some of the ideas that he considered central to his metaphysics–for instance, his views about space, time, substance, and causality–are widely held to have been superseded by modern physics.

So what is so great about Kant? How is his philosophy still relevant today? What makes his texts worth studying and his ideas worth pondering? These are questions that could occasion a big book. What follows is my brief two penn'th on Kant's contribution to modern ways of thinking. I am not suggesting that Kant was the first or the only thinker to put forward the ideas mentioned here, or that they exhaust what is valuable in his philosophy. My purpose is just to identify some of the central strains in his thought that remain remarkably pertinent to contemporary debates.

1. Kant recognized that in the wake of the scientific revolution, what we call “knowledge” needed to be reconceived. He held that we should restrict the concept of knowledge to scientific knowledge–that is, to claims that are, or could be, justified by scientific means.

2. He identified the hallmark of scientific knowledge as what can be verified by empirical observation (plus some philosophical claims about the framework within which such observations occur). Where this isn't possible, we don't have knowledge; we have, instead, either pseudo-science (e.g. astrology), or unrestrained speculation (e.g. religion).

3. He understood that both everyday life and scientific knowledge rests on, and is made orderly, by some very basic assumptions that aren't self-evident but can't be entirely justified by empirical observations. For instance, we assume that the physical world will conform to mathematical principles. Kant argues in the Critique of Pure Reason that our belief that every event has a cause is such an assumption; perhaps, also, our belief that effects follow necessarily from their causes; but many today reject his classification of such claims as “synthetic a priori.” Regardless of whether one agrees with Kant's account of what these assumptions are, his justification of them is thoroughly modern since it is essentially pragmatic. They make science possible. More generally, they make the world knowable. Kant in fact argues that in their absence our experience from one moment to the next would not be the coherent and intelligible stream that it is.

Read more »

Evolving to the Future, the Web of Culture

by Bill Benzon


“The interests of humanity may change, the present curiosities in science may cease, and entirely different things may occupy the human mind in the future.” One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.

Stanislaw Ulam, from a tribute to John von Neumann

In scientific prognostication we have a condition analogous to a fact of archery–the farther back you are able to draw your longbow, the farther ahead you can shoot.

R. Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path

Let’s get started:

  • A week ago The Guardian published a long piece in which Pankaj Mishra argued that the Western world no longer provides a model the rest of the world should or even can follow, if it ever had.
  • A couple of weeks ago polymath David Byrne asserted that he’d lost interest in contemporary art, feeling it had devolved into “inoffensive tchotchkes for billionaires and the museums they fund,” a sentiment that the late Robert Hughes had been promulgating for some years.
  • Back in 1996 science journalist John Horgan published The End of Science, in which he argued that many fields of science had reached a point where they were no longer intellectually productive. The big problems had been solved, more or less, and further investigations seemed to be running in circles without any clear sense of progress.

Not only am I sympathetic which each of these ideas, I think they all reflect the same underlying cause: the wellsprings of old ideas – about social organization, artistic expression, and scientific explanation, certainly, but also about fiction, legal codes, economics, education, music, gender and family, and a host of others – have run dry and new ones have not yet been discovered.

I’m quite familiar with this phenomenon in the case of literary studies, where I received my graduate training. The French landed in Baltimore in the Fall of 1966 and catalyzed three decades of intellectual invention. The invention all but stopped about twenty years ago, leaving literary studies afflicted with a sense of malaise that goes deeper than budget cuts and umbrage taken at silly articles in which humorists of The New York Times take potshots at papers presented at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association.

How could new ideas just stop? Have people gotten stupid or is something else going on? If so, what?

Read more »

Exeunt Omni: The Story Has Turned

by Gautam Pemmaraju

In a recent critique of Pankaj Mishra’s book From The Ruins Of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, David Shulman points out interestingly, that in attempting to articulate a composite notion of Asian modernity (and thereby resistance to the West), to configure modernity in context with attendant modernizing processes, negotiations, and ‘modern’ ideas, one must take note of pre-colonial times wherein, as Velcheru Narayana Rao has argued for South India, there are intriguing, ‘organic’, ‘forms of awareness’ that are to be found in Telugu and Tamil speaking regions towards the end of the fifteenth century. “Highly original thinkers and poets” had during this time generated work “comprising a novel anthropology” and, Maps_90368_merc_ind_or_med

Thus we find, with particular prominence, the concept of an autonomous, subjective individual, responsible for his or her fate; a new theory of romantic love; the development of literary fiction as a privileged literary technique; a vogue for skepticism and realism, seen as informing the pragmatics of everyday life; the emergence of a cash economy and the conceptual revolution that rapid monetarization entails; the appearance of a bold, full-throated, unfettered female voice; and a new concept of nature as a rule-bound domain, separate from the human and amenable to disciplined observation and extrapolation. An innovative economic model of the mind, centered on the imaginative faculty, came to define the meaning of being human.

Far from the ‘bewildered Asians’, ‘accustomed to divine dispensations’, Shulman points out further that Narayana Rao, Sanjay Subrahmanyam and himself have written extensively on these precolonial ‘shifts in sensibility’ as articulated by several inventive writers and thinkers. ‘Colonial modernity’ in 19th century India was expressed in part by the high-minded social reform of protests against prevalent social evils – child marriage, ban against widow remarriage, the ‘nautch girls’ question (the institution of courtesans), moribund traditions, evil superstitions, and suchlike. These social reformers and ‘modernists’, such as Kandukuri Veerasalingam in Andhra, ‘dreary’, ‘disassociated’, and ‘strident’, Shulman argues, obscure the influence, the ‘subtlety’, and the imagination of ‘the real modernists’ who reside in the shadows.

It is in this context that he invokes the much loved ‘modern’ Telugu play, Kanyasulkam (1892), seared into the collective imagination of the Telugu speaking people (particularly Andhra), and written by the maverick writer, Gurajada Apparao, who was one of the pioneers of the spoken vernacular in written form, as opposed to the exclusionary prose of elite literary groups. It is then this play – as a work of potent literary imagination, as a critical text that animated discourse and society at large (co-opted by reformists, Marxists, and others alike), as arguably even an ‘internal’ critique holding up a mirror to orthodoxy, transactions of power and venality amongst Brahmins, and ultimately, as a critique of colonial experience – that represents a form of dexterous modernity quite beyond the limited purview of social reform and colonial modulation. Revealing subtle social contracts and subversive caste/class roles with deft satire, the nuanced narrative mobility of ‘others’ with finely balanced ethical and moral choices, Kanyasulkam is a marker of an inherent literary sophistication, a preexisting enlightenment of sorts. Its place in the Telugu literary firmament is a prominent one indeed, and its ‘social life’, an influential one.

Read more »