Thursday, April 01, 2010

In the footsteps of James Hillman 17





Back to the Invisibles

A Note on the Visibles and Invisibles: Towards a more open Epistemology

Science deals with the measurable and with the visible.  So goes the common misconception.  Such an opening sentence as this is more at home in the seventeenth and early eighteen centuries than in the twenty first.  Believe it or not, it was John Locke (1632 – 1704), widely known as the Father of Liberalism, who was an English philosopher and physician and also regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers who put forward in quite a strident manner that only the measurable and the visible were the proper domain of science.  This theory was called empiricism and Locke is looked upon as the founder of British empiricism. The term "empirical" was originally used to refer to certain ancient Greek practitioners of medicine who rejected adherence to the dogmatic doctrines of the day, preferring instead to rely on the observation of phenomena as perceived in experienceJohn Locke argued that the mind is a tabula rasa (he actually used the words "white paper") on which experiences leave their marks. Such empiricism denies that humans have innate ideas or that anything is knowable without reference to experience.


In short, therefore, according to the empiricist view, for any knowledge to be properly inferred or deduced, it is to be gained ultimately from one's sense-based experience.  However, the world has moved on.  Not all of our knowledge is observable to the senses - both at the micro and macro levels.  There is much at the atomic and subatomic levels that is not observable, not alone to the naked eye, but also to the technologically-assisted eye which we know about today.  Likewise, there is much at the cosmological level that we know exists, not all of it observable by the technologically-assisted eye, either.  Nor do we need the words of the great contemporary physicist and cosmologist, and wonderfully clear science writer, Paul Davies to convince us, as he so well does in the opening chapter of his book The Goldilocks Enigma, marvellously called "The Big Questions" that we know far more than meets the eye of the observer.  Davies , in this book, asks the big questions from a physicist's and cosmologist's view point, not from a philosopher's or theologian's, I hasten to add, yet he asks questions of the kind they ask.  Let's listen to a few of his musings, in this book, which seek to answer, or at least gain some insights into why the universe is just right for life.  Here are some of Paul Davies' words:

How has this come about?  Somehow the universe has engineeered, not just its own awareness, but its own comprehension.  Mindless, blundering atoms have conspired to make, not just life, not just mind, but understanding.  The evolving cosmos has spawned beings who are able not merely to watch the show, but to unravel the plot.  What is it that enables something as small and delicate and adapted to terrestrial life as the human brain to engage with the totality of the cosmos and the silent mathematical tune to which it dances?  For all we know,  this is the first and only time anywhere in the universe that minds have glimpsed the cosmic code.  (The Goldilocks Enigma, Penguin, 2007, pp. 5-6)
Now those of us acquainted with the history of philosophy will know that philosophical empiricism is commonly contrasted with the philosophical school of thought known as "rationalism" which, in very broad terms, asserts that much knowledge is attributable to reason independently of the senses. However, this contrast is today considered quite rightly to be an extreme oversimplification of the issues involved, because the main continental rationalists (Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz) were also advocates of the empirical "scientific method" of their day. Furthermore, Locke, for his part, held that some knowledge (e.g. knowledge of God's existence) could be arrived at through intuition and reasoning alone.

Now back to our man of the moment, James Hillman.  He calls the current chapter "Back to the Invisibles."  Now, I would argue, with many scientists as well as psychologists and psychiatrists that we know and are capable of knowing much more than we can observe and deduce from those observations, and that in consequence of the explorations of the unconscious, begun formally by Freud, yet explored creatively for generations by creative writers in all cultures, that we know more than we are even aware of.  In other words not all knowledge is even conscious knowledge. In short, that's what I mean when I stated above in my title that our epistemology must always be an open one, and never a closed one.

As regards "invisibility," Hillman reminds us, not that we need much reminding, that the very concept perplexes American common  sense and indeed American Psychology.  Of course, we know Hillman is going to throw a "spanner in the works" here, to use a crass cliché.  Now lets listen briefly to his eccentric and poetic words:
A passion to cage the invisible by visible methods continues to motivate the science of psychology, even though that science has given up the century-long serach for the soul in various body parts and systems.  When the serachers failed to find the soul in the places where they were looking, psychology gave up also on the idea of soul. (The Soul's Code, p. 92) 
Hillman adverts to three bridges between the Visible (Seen) and the Invisible (Unseen) and names them as: Mathematics, Music and Myth.  These are three wonderful areas of exploration and three wonderful bridges to cross.  The world of the invisible, the world of the soul, the world of the passions, the world of the heart, the world of the imagination, the world of our dreams, the world of our hopes - call it what you want - none of it is visible, yet it is all so real for us, figment of our imagination or not.   And, once again I marvel at how Davies (on mathematics, physics and cosmology) shares so much with what Hillman (on psychology, mythology and story) and Anthony Storr (on music and harmony and communication).  No wonder, they are all crossing Hillman's bridge between the visible and the invisible.

Above, another picture of a painting from the Vatican Museum - very appropriate to Holy Week, depicting perhaps another bridge between visible and invisible, at least for Christians.

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