Friday, June 29, 2007

Alienation and the growth of knowledge

... for he said: "I have been a stranger in a strange land." - Exodus 18

It's usually true in life that we never really know something or someone if we're merely familiar with it. An acquaintance, a familiar locale near home, a piece of road we drive over daily - how many of us really know these, as opposed to just nodding and barely registering what our senses take in? Really knowing something takes first not knowing it, and if we're already familiar with it, we need to first de-familiarize ourselves with it.

Alienation, which is usually viewed as a simply negative thing, is crucial to our developing any real understanding of the world around us. It has to seem alien to us, or we to it, for some period if we're ever really going to look at it hard and really understand it. This is also why it's easier to be objective about electrons, planets, and cars - and develop sciences and engineering based on that objectivity - than it is to be objective about other people and, all the more so, about ourselves.

Before Copernicus, the Earth seemed like a familiar place to people - yet almost everything about it was unknown. Copernicus proposed a strange idea that many balked at, because it violated "common sense" - that the Earth is a heavenly body, as Galileo put it. Explorers sailing the then-new ocean-going ships discovered that a lot of what the inherited culture of Europe and the Near East thought it "knew" about the Earth, its peoples, and their habitats and civilizations was wrong or radically inadequate. The shock of seeing this gap in authoritative received wisdom set off mental shock waves in civilization that still affect us to this day.

Much of what we take for granted about the Earth - the intertwined climate and biogeosphere - is certainly unique in our planetary system and probably unusual in our Galaxy. In the old days of science fiction, before about 1950, writers could project on to other planets circumstances that were a little weird and yet familiarly enough like Earth to not seem really strange. Then we got to know other planets for real and thus really know the Earth for the first time. (Now we're learning a lot more about other stars and extrasolar planets.) Obviously, such knowledge should make us appreciate the Earth in a way we couldn't before. But these cuddly feelings are not the whole story. The history of the Earth coming to seem strange to us as a prelude to real understanding doesn't just culminate in warm fuzziness - it's a scientific and philosophical triumph. To my mind, that's the fundamental significance of the Gaia notion.

You'd think philosophers, at least in modern times, would have picked up on the interplay of familiarity, alienation, and knowledge and not, unlike the ancients, taken alienation as a simple positive or negative. There is one philosopher who made this drama of naiveté, conflict, and enlightenment a key to his thinking - that would be Hegel, the great German Enlightenment thinker who was a friend of Schiller and Goethe and contemporary with Beethoven. (Hegel died in 1831.) His achievement was obscured by later popular legends spread by his students and critics - for example, Marx and his followers - that falsely portrayed Hegel's system as a cookie-cutter "dialectical" game of Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis and (worse) as the workings of "pure ideas."* While Hegel's system can be criticized - for its perhaps too-easy optimism or its Eurocentrism - such caricatures have often hidden what he achieved.

G. W. F. HegelHegel's notion, thoroughly explored in his Science of Logic and Phenomenology of Spirit (or Mind**), is a drama of "stages of consciousness," not "pure ideas." His is a biography of the individual and collective spirit (Zeitgeist, or "spirit of the times" - a Hegel coinage). All of our notions of developmental psychology ultimately trace their way back to him - as we say of someone, "he's just going through a phase." Behind that thought is Hegel's biographical, developmental, and historical - in our post-Darwin world, we should say, genetic - approach. In this, like anyone under the spell of the German Enlightenment, Hegel was in turn profoundly indebted to Goethe, an almost incomprehensible colossus himself.

Of course, stuck in alienation, we experience disorientation and pain, and all of us just want that to stop. But our spiritual enlargement hangs on how it stops - do we get stuck - or regress - or do we get to the other side and expand our understanding? It marks the real difference between being merely familiar with something and really knowing it.
* Hegel did himself no favor in his major works by writing in a deliberately difficult and obscure style, a trend started in the late 18th century by Kant in his major works. Interestingly, both Kant and Hegel wrote shorter summaries for students and a general audience far more readable than their hefty opera magna. (The same dichotomy appears in Marx.) Later philosophers such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche both criticized Hegel and ended up owing him a deep debt, but proving also that literary German need not lead to the intellectual equivalent of indigestion.

** The German is Geist, which has no exact equivalent in English. Our word ghost is a cognate.

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