Friday, March 21, 2014


"In Arendt's thinking, it is the beginner who is the guarantor of political freedom, the beginner, born into speech, speaking to the world, to other beginners. The human social beginnings—of birth, of speech—define the shared condition—natality, in Arendt’s coinage—and ensure that action reveals the improbable yet always renewing freedom inherent in collective life. Without speech, she argues, action would lose its subjects and become violence." (Lisa Roberston)

The title of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions notwithstanding, Kuhn's view of science was a highly conservative one. He did not believe that revolutions were what was characteristic of science at all; rather, they were to be understood as exceptions to the "normal" functioning of a "mature" science. Moreover, since successor paradigms are "incommensurable" with their predecessors, it is not possible to say that a revolution brings us closer to the truth about nature. Different paradigms are always about different things. In a revolution, we don't learn more about apples but something more precise about oranges than we previously knew about those apples. The "adult" members of mature scientific discipline, like adults everywhere else, see revolutions as first and foremost annoying, and usually also scandalous. After all, a proposed revolution always proposes to undo the gains of the previous one, and will in any case turn accepted values on their head. This is not just effrontery, either: it will have very real effects on the hard-won privileges of the current elite members of a field.

But one of the marks of true adulthood, real maturity, of course, is the ability and willingness see beyond one's own self-interest and to think on behalf of the community's needs as a whole. The "great learning", or what Ezra Pound translated as Confucius's program of "adult study" was "rooted in watching with affection the way people grow". Mature adults may not desire revolutionary changes in their communities, but they are able to appreciate and even feel affection for growth. If a community really does begin to resemble the bleak nightmare of Orwell's 1984, it is because its leaders become resistant to any change or growth at all. When only ends justify means there can be no tolerance for beginnings. And yet, the ability to begin something is, as in Lisa Robertson's reading of Hannah Arendt, the essence of freedom, including the freedom of inquiry. Remove that ability and all action becomes violence.

You know you're in trouble, I once said, when the only adult in the room is the enfant terrible. Sometimes, that is, maturity is just a pretense, sometimes we are only pretending to be adults in order to avoid the emergence of a shocking or painful truth. Sometimes what is called for is not another "exemplar" of normal science, but the exposure of a fundamental error in our whole way of thinking. And communities rarely have a dignified place for the individual who feels compelled to make this case, and this person is, indeed, as Andrew Shields has pointed out in the comments to Wednesday's post, often actually a crank or quack, obsessed with his or her own personal truth and inconsolably "oppressed" by the community consensus, no matter how well-founded. And it is therefore sadly the case that even a true revolutionary, even a wholly necessary "beginner", who has made a real discovery, will have to proceed under the suspicion that he or she is a crank, and will almost certainly suffer the derision of the soi-disant "adults" that make up the field. To really begin, then, perhaps always requires the insolence of a child.

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

I dug a few things out of my dissertation chapter on Doris Lessing, quotations from Arendt's "Origins of Totalitarianism":

"with each new birth, a new beginning is born into the world, a new world has potentially come into being"

"The laws hedge in each new beginning and at the same time assure its freedom of movement, the potentiality of something entirely new and unpredictable; the boundaries of positive laws are for the political existence of man what memory is for his historical existence: they guarantee the pre-existence of a common world, the reality of some continuity which transcends the individual life span of each generation, absorbs all new origins and is nourished by them."

And, from later in my dissertation but earlier in Arendt:

"The dark background of mere givenness, the background formed by our unchangeable and unique nature, breaks into the political scene as the alien which in its all too obvious difference reminds us of the limitations of human activity—which are identical with the limitations of human equality. The reason why highly developed political communities [...] so often insist on ethnic homogeneity is that they hope to eliminate as far as possible those natural and always present differences and differentiations which by themselves arouse dumb hatred, mistrust and discrimination because they indicate all too clearly those spheres where man cannot act and change at will, i.e., the limitations of the human artifice."