the sprawling toolbox

In one of his notebooks Wittgenstein wrote, “I don’t believe I have ever invented a line of thinking. I have always taken one over from someone else…. — What I invent are new similes.” Maybe that’s what humanistic thought is essentially: a search for new similes, new ways of perceiving the familiar — better to appreciate it when it deserves appreciation and better to change it when it requires changing. A mode of lateral thinking. A way of restocking the toolbox

In such a project, the late great Mary Midgely once argued, religious experience is vital, because “there is a general tendency for new imaginative ways of understanding life to emerge from religious thinking – that is, from thoughts which go beyond current human horizons.” That is, one of the social functions of religious experience — wholly aside from whether any particular religion is true or not — is to create similes, to extend thinking laterally, to add to the toolbox. “The language that has been developed over the centuries for talking about the mental and spiritual side of life is not some feeble, amateurish ‘folk-psychology’. It is a highly sophisticated toolbox adapted for just that difficult purpose.” 

The sociologist David Martin — also late and great; he died just a few months after Midgely — thought that this proliferation of similes is indeed essential to humanistic discourse, and thought he knew why. In his late book Ruin and Restoration: On Violence, Liturgy and Reconciliation (London: Routledge, 2016) he wrote:

The cultural disciplines, theology included alongside sociology, depend on history. History involves narrative, and narrative involves contingency and subjectivity … History can only be narrated in ordinary language, in principle available to any competent language user. The same applies to the cultural disciplines. They have no concepts like ‘quasars’ in astrophysics or even ‘metabolism’ in medicine, unless metabolism is used metaphorically. The fundamental role played by contingent narrative expressed in ordinary language means that the cultural disciplines are metaphorical and rhetorical to a degree not found in the natural sciences and they proliferate taxonomies. They sprawl because attended by numerous qualifications dependent on cultural time and space. The setting out of the ceteris paribus clause can be very extended indeed. (p. 9) 

The irony here is that one invokes ceteris paribus — all things being equal — precisely because all things rarely are equal. One must continually account for cultural and social and experiential difference, make “numerous qualifications dependent on cultural time and space.” 

I have made a similar version of this point in particular relation to the need for a theological anthropology adequate to our moment: 

To this claim there may be the immediate response, especially from orthodox Christians, that theology need not be different in this age than in any other, for human nature does not change: it remains true now as it has been since the angels with their flaming swords were posted at the gates of Eden that we are made in the image of God and yet have defaced that image, and that what theologians call “the Christ event” — the incarnation, preaching, healing, death, resurrection, ascension, and ultimate return of the second person of the Trinity — is the means by which that image will be restored and the wounds we have inflicted on the Creation healed. And indeed all that does, I believe, remain true. Yet it does not follow from such foundational salvation history that “theology need not be different in this age than any other.”

We may indeed believe in some universal human nature and nevertheless believe that certain frequencies on the human spectrum of possibility become more audible at times; indeed, the dominance of certain frequencies in one era can render others unheard, and only when that era passes and a new one replaces it may we realize that there were all along transmissions that we couldn’t hear because they were drowned out, overwhelmed. The moral and spiritual soundscape of the world is in constant flux, and calls forth, if we have ears to hear and a willingness to respond, new theological reflections that do not erase the truthfulness or even significance of former theological articulations but have a responsibility to add to them. In this sense at least there must be “development of doctrine.” 

Note that the invocation of a “soundscape” is itself an attempt at coining a useful simile. It may be related to the concept of stochastic resonance in reading. It is probably not wholly compatible with the metaphor of vendoring culture. You generate the similes, you try them out, you discard some and lean on others. You hope that at some point you’re able not just to invent them but use them to aid understanding: there’s no point in having a big sprawling toolbox if you don’t put the tools to work. But right now I’m working on the development of those tools. 

Or am I sowing seeds in my blog garden? This business of simile-generation is complicated

April 13, 2021

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