Cont from Memoir -1, 22
Jan. ’72 The Greenwood Press
O.K. Back to urea. If I understand you rightly, you mean that synthetic urea was a breakthrough rather like artificial intelligence?
Very good analogy. They are on a continuum. Organic nature could be replaced, I like to say, supplanted, pun intended, by Organic Chemistry, as the chemistry of artificial synthesis, just as the human mind can be superseded by computers, a kind of synthetic brain, or artificial intelligence. The whole debate about whether machines can think is part of this confusion between organic and synthetic which the Physicalists try to argue is identical. It is as if they try to impute a kind of virtual or synthetic or artificial “life” to their ontology of death, just to get the sucker to move.
And Woehler began the confusion with his synthesis of urea?
Woehler said his synthetic urea was “absolutely identical” with organic urea. The stupidity is compounded by a continuing array of nonsense formulations palmed off as truth, such as: “Life is nothing more than physical and chemical constituents”, which is all that matters, emphasis on matter. It is the reductionist dumb-down syndrome again. Or “Life is a qualification of dead matter”, in the definition of Oparin, the Russian biologist, which is a variation on Freud’s failed definition of consciousness as a qualitative leap in the neurone. You can hardly believe the wool pulled over your eyes. And yet these failed formulae are axioms for the Physicalists.
So you see the defeat of Vitalism as the loss of the dimension of organic nature?
Vitalism was the hold-out for organs or structures that distinguished organic entities from artificial and synthetic ones as a product of laboratory or manufacturing procedures. Vitalism was defensive about the distinction between organic and inorganic in the realm of nature, the difference between a carrot and a stone, or, Tang and orange juice.
So organic chemistry ruined all that?
Organic chemistry collapsed the distinction–it was simply a matter of chemical structure with no attention to realms or spheres such as organic and inorganic, in terms of qualitative differences. In fact, it is a fallacy known as metabasis eis allo genos, confusing one realm or dimension with another, the old mixing of apples and oranges. At least they’re fruit.
But are they organic? Ha ha.
You see how silly it can get? Vitalist qualities were considered “occult” which is only worthy of contempt. Think about it: occult qualities? It is reminiscent of the notion of life as “a subtle hoax of nature”, a term I learned from Hans Jonas. It is a great way of putting this issue. I would like to know where he got that from. He makes it clear that the entire movement of science in the modern period is an ontology of death, where life is the great mystery. Science doesn’t know what to do with a mystery like life. The lab and the factory took over from organic nature and the garden. We can mimic it, they said, and you won’t know the difference. So shut up about it. Factories are plants.
Can you give me an illustration?
I just did. How can you beat the factory/plant confusion? “Where are you going, honey?” “Oh, down to the plant”. Call it an identity, if you will, so it can work both ways. Plants became little factories for the making of chemicals, just so you didn’t argue for some life force or vital principle to distinguish them from the big factories which really turned out the stuff. Tang is orange juice. Velveeta is cheese. Remember when they tried to palm off a bread made of wood fiber? It’s one of the few failures in the ersatz column. Ersatz coffee, at least, is called ersatz. Or is it Postum? Substitutions are made on the principle of identity which is a hoax. You see the turnabout? First they call life a hoax of nature and then they give us the hoax of synthetics as the real thing. Synthetic urea, artificial intelligence, mystico-mimetic psychedelics, virtual reality, are all symptomatic key terms for the progression of the Big Lie, based on a series of eliminations: the elimination of Vitalism or the vital force, the elimination of metaphysics and meaningful discourse about aesthetics, ethics, and anything unverifiable, according to experimental laboratory protocols, the elimination of consciousness in reductive behaviorism, and so on. The major event, I have come to appreciate, was the smashing of the atom and the risk they took. This is the Physicalist trend I am keen to identify.
And now there is the possibility of cloning a human being after Dolly, the sheep, and the monkey.
Well, that would do it wouldn’t it. Clinton has tried to put a hold on such research and made some moral pronouncements, but it will happen. Someone once said if there is a door science will open it. The smashing of the atom and the bomb are perfect illustrations, at the risk of destroying the universe. Fermi came in one day and said, “Nah, I don’t think it will happen. Let’s do it!” Kirkpatrick Sale, the author of the Luddite book, had this to say in the Times today:
“But neither he (Clinton) nor Congress will be able to ban the technological imperative that is inevitable in a culture built on the myth of human power and the cult of progress. The essence of this imperative was perhaps best defined by two men who crafted its apotheosis, the atomic bomb.
“When you see something that is technically sweet you go ahead and do it,” said Robert Oppenheimer.
“Technological possibilities are irresistable to man,” said John von Neumann. “If man can go to the moon, he will. If he can control the climate, he will.”
These men were creating a weapon they knew could obliterate the earth. They couldn’t stop.
If the cloning of human embryos is possible–and no one really doubts anymore that it is–it will happen. In a world that not only permits but also commodifies gene-splicing, amniocentesis and in vitro fertilization, there cannot be any lasting legal restraints on any breakthrough in reproductive technology. The history of science is the history of the dominance of technology, establishing its own definitions and boundaries, over settled human societies and ordered perceptions. Nothing suggests that the President or Congress has the power–or ultimately the will–to defy that relentless juggernaut.” New York Times, Friday, March 7, 1997.
So you think science and technology are a relentless juggernaut?
That is exactly what I think.
Is there another illustration you can give?
O.K. Take Kant. He stood there with Goethe at his side, and played dumb, what he would have called “Critical Ignorance”, in a tradition I happen to love, going back to Socrates and the confession of self-delusion, through Dionysius the Areopagite and Negative or Apophatic Theology, and Nicholas Cusanus and Knowing Ignorance, but which hits the wall with Kant, which we have already mentioned, when Heidegger discusses how Kant recoiled from the (unknown but all too known) vital root. That’s hyperbole of a high order if you know what is meant. Kant tried to line up with the consequences of Newton and Galileo and the mathematization of nature and the philosophical basis for industrial society. It is in figures like Kant that the trend gets its mind, the mind it deserves, it is a very great mind, one of the greatest in the history of thought, but it is a fundamentally flawed mind, one that recoiled from the vital root. I would say that Kant recoiled from the vital root of organic nature, although in Kantian studies it is the vital root of the transcendental imagination, where most people would draw a blank unless they can make their way through the Third Critique: The Critique of Judgement. We have been living out the Kantian Recoil ever since, which I see as an accommodation to industrial society and experimental laboratory science. Husserl is the one who understood this recoil and Heidegger tried to follow it through. I wish I was smart enough to write a book with that title–The Kantian Recoil– following Husserl’s and Heidegger’s lead. Here is something I wrote that I found in my notes:
“Kant’s estimation of Newton is expressed in his elevation of physics and mathematics as the primary science, with biology unequal in scientific status. According to Kant, there was no hope for a ‘Newton of the grass blades.'”
That’s a good reference for Chadwick. For you, he really was a “Newton of the grass blades”.
But for the tide running against us, maybe so, but we were small potatoes, believe me. Newton was probably the smartest guy who ever lived, so he deserves the honors. But Chadwick as a “Newton of the grass blades” is a lovely moniker. If I could only do it over again and if I could have understood what we had in our hands, namely the organic revolution, back to affirming organic integrity, if national recognition had come to Chadwick and what he tried to do in teaching his method then he would have been a “Newton of the grass blades”. The title is so ironic I can hardly bear it. To continue what I wrote:
“Kant stated this as an antinomy of judgment, as though Physicalism and Vitalism were the names for the antinomy: Mechanistic Physicalism without purpose, or purposive Vitalism without Mechanistic Physicalism. It was the conflict of cause and form. As a logician, Kant wanted to make the point clear and he accomplished this to the disadvantage of Vitalism in his celebrated distinction between regulative and constitutive principles, a distinction in value between two sorts of concepts. Causal concepts are constitutive–they cut the mustard, just as they ‘count’ for knowledge; rmal concepts are regulative, merely regulative, inasmuch as purpose or form is only an “idea” or a “heuristic maxim.” We’ll take it is up again in the debate between Goethe and Schiller on the meaning of the urplant which Schiller called “only an idea”.
Is there more?
One more paragraph:
“Therefore, in the Kantian tradition, Physicalism and Vitalism is the conflict between physics and biology, with physics calling the shots, inasmuch as biology is a less objective science.
“He could dwell on the special rights and value of biology but could not assign it the same rank or the same objective value in the hierarchy of knowledge as mathematical and physical knowledge. The latter possessed, and would always possess, a true objectivity, and this distinction could be neither belittled nor disputed.”
Cassirer: The Problem Of Knowledge, p 211
Doesn’t one have to be a student of philosophy to follow these thoughts.
No. Any student will do. I think any intelligent person can see what I am trying to bring to bear on the case I am trying to make. Philosophy provides the formulations germane to the issue, which is what philosophy is for. Why can’t anyone interested in these matters be a student of philosophy? It is open for everyone. It is a field of inquiry and disclosure. So go ahead and be a student of philosophy, no one is stopping you. Read the books. Enter the discussion. Take part in the debate. It is all there for your perusal and enlightenment. Transcend yourself. Don’t get stuck in your little domain where they pull the wool over your eyes. The stakes are so high now as to be insurmountable. As Sale says at the end of his letter: “It will be a chaotic future. Better get used to it.”
So Kant leads to Husserl who leads to Heidegger?
Think about the symbolism of the terms involved. Heidegger’s mourning over “the oblivion of being”, and his concept of “the cancellation of being”, follows in this line. He writes the word–“being”– as crossed out. Kant started it with his argument that existence is not a predicate. Husserl brackets existence in his famous phenomenological reduction. All of this, to me, reflects the fate of “existence” in industrial society and leads to Existentialism as the protest movement against this fate and the outcry of this fate. In such technical tangles you have major symbolic events illustrative of the course of history and the fate we are supposed to suffer. Here is my point: hardly anyone sees the symbolism because they get stuck in the technical points. I am working this out in a detailed way as a preface to a philosophy and mathematics of chaos. I see chaos thought as a neo-Vitalist development and an unforeseen consequence of the trend of deconstruction and spiritual deformation. It is a key part of the central shake-up and characterizes the age we live in. The affirmation of chaos is a good thing. I hope. We are going to have a lot of it.
Whoa, this is getting more dense than I expected. The Kan tian recoil from the unknown or vital root….? You see this in connection with his famous argument that existence is not a predicate. Let’s get that straight before we go on to chaos.
That’s right! We talked about this. We have touched on that before. These issues turn into philosophical problems but that’s my metier. It all comes out in the wash. I can gloss every point at length, chapter and verse, including graphics. Just keep asking questions. Think of it as a revelation with a variable lag: it will get said! I have twenty-five years invested in this line. I can provide the literature, bibliographies, footnotes, reference works, chapter and verse, you name it. It is a line of thought.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Don’t count your chickens. Forget Kant and the philosophers for the moment. How did you meet Chadwick?
Freya von Moltke arranged it. She said he would do my garden for me. I completely accepted it, as I said. It was a gift. Chadwick was coming back from Australia where he thought he might settle. She knew he wouldn’t like it and she was right. She was his muse. He was very devoted to her. So when we met, I simply asked him: “Will you do a garden for us?” He said: “Yes.”
He went downtown, bought a spade and started to dig. He didn’t ask me anything, not where, not when, not how. I found him there digging, in the space he picked, a slope below Merrill College, where the soils seemed terrible, as only poison oak and wild chaparral grew there, but he wanted a slope for a number of reasons, exposure to the sun, drainage, etc., and it was a perfect one. He turned that space into the most fertile garden in the world. He dug and he dug.
Eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, for two years, before we persuaded him to take a week-end off. You see what I mean about replanting the vital root…? He was on a mission.
And then, two years later, we took him to Tassajara as a reward–the Zen Mountain Retreat in the Carmel Valley, my friend, Baker-roshi, had started. For a week-end. loved which The water, the river, the baths, the pool, the Narrows, tI the lfood, it. The bread. It was Shangri-la prepared and ready and waiting.
And he proposed their putting in a garden for him. food needs. garden to supply their basic
That’s when he met Richard and Virginia Baker? .
Yes. They became devoted members of the Chadwick Memorial or whatever you want to call it, morial important part of the history, a very
Chadwick is buried at Green Gulch, the Zen Farm at Muir Beach? .
Yes. They brought a stone up from Tassajara to mark his grave. They took care of him in a way for which I will be eternally grateful after he contracted incurable cancer of the prostate. They took him back.
Let’s go back to UCSC. OK
You had your garden going/growing by the time of Earth Day One in April of 1970?
Yes. It was a big triumph for us. The garden began anticipate and celebrate Earth Day and the awakening though to environmental movement which was a neo-Vitalist upsurge, a re-affirmation of the integrity of organic nature in the recognition of the dangers posed by industrial society. It was a personal triumph because I had met Gaylord Nelson, the Senator from Wisconsin, during the summer of 1969, on a wilderness wild river canoe trip in Northern Wisconsin. We summer there every year and I was on a sabbatical through the rest of the year. A few months later, I saw him announce Earth Day while watching the TODAY show. I was invited to speak at UC Berkeley, the day before Gaylord spoke, on that great and epoch making weekend of April 22, 1970.
Exactly. Life returned to (ab)normal. Now we have celebrated the 27th anniversary. Time marches on. I hate to say it, but in my darker moments I think of Earth Day and the environmental/ecology movements as the death rattle of defeated Vitalism. The Physicalists thought they had nailed down the lid on the corpse of dead and defeated Vitalism, but the coffin unglued, and the corpse sat up, and made this awful sound for some decades: unh, unh, unh, unh unh unh.
This is your way of characterizing the environmental movement?
In my despair over the future. It nails my case, to reverse the metaphor: The Environmental Movement As the Death Rattle of Defeated Vitalism. We have a Club of Despair, in Santa Cruz, sort of a cultural Hemlock Society–Mary Holmes, Ralph Abraham, and a few others, are members, but only through affinity–it is not something you would recruit for. We are not exactly without hope–there is always the unexpected to watch out for, as Heraclitus said, but this is hoping against hope, where hope can break the heart, hope can be too strong. I’m thinking now of the lines from “A Lady Is Not For Burning.”
What precipitated this despairing line of thought?
Existentialism. I studied this philosophical movement when I was in school. My teacher–Tillich. was a major exponent and interpreter of it and I was influenced by him. He spoke of the outcry, the protest against industrial society, on the part of Existentialism, in all of its forms–philosophy, literature, drama, the arts. I began to think about the late stage of the self-destruction of industrial society, the phrase became a mantra, the leitmotif of my thought for four decades. When the Physicalist/Vitalist conflict opened up for me, as a result of the Garden Project vs. the University, I came to see how Existentialism was chief mourner for defeated Vitalism. No one had seen it in this light and it fit perfectly into my sketch.
So existentialism is the movement of thought that picks up where Vitalism left off, mourning, as it were, the consequences for existence of the triumph and then self-destruction of industrial society.
Don’t forget –“the world above the given world of nature..”
Devoid of vital roots.
And the smashing of the atom, in the squash court in Chicago, when Fermi worried about the destruction of the universe, in a possible wayward reaction, that did it for you.
That did it for me.
The zero point of the sketch. Then Existentialism was superseded by the environmental movement?
Exactly. 1970 is as good a year as any to announce the end of Existentialism, especially in its role as chief mourner for defeated Vitalism. First 1828 and the refutation of Vitalism. Then comes Existentialism as Chief Mourner. From 1841-42 to 1970. Those are the dates for the beginning and end of Existentialism. From despair to a very fragile renewed hope. The struggle was re-enjoined. The outcry took on a different note. It was a moment of renewed hope as though something could be done and the age of environmental activism was ushered in. But the extent of self-destruction, just take the single problem of the disposal of nuclear wastes, now seems so intractable, so pervasive, so all-consuming that the re-affirmation of the integrity of organic nature takes on the character of an historical episode, a passing fancy, like the health food movement and medicinal herbs, for instance.
Wait a minute. Before you explain what you mean by that, tell me whether you think the wayward reaction happened anyhow, only in a different form.
I wondered if you would catch that. I have thought about it, partly because the concept of a “wayward reaction” is so compelling. So, in a way, they did their destruction anyhow and the wayward reaction has taken different forms, beginning with the bomb and now the problem of the disposal of nuclear wastes as well as all of the attendant health issues for those who have been exposed to radiation and so on. We’re not out of this destructive path of the wayward reaction by any means. It is a good term for suffering the consequences of what Fermi and Compton did. It sets the standard for the measure of self-destruction and when I found that Fermi had a mathematical equation for the possible wayward reaction, I thought I had found the equation for self-destruction.
Although you are still looking for it. Why is the trend so strong?
The Physicalist stronghold and the grip it has on us is the driving power of our culture, for the most part, and withstands any and all critical assaults. No one is equal to it. It is basically business as usual, with some minor modifications or concessions. Look at the history of the Superfund, as a good example, and the effort to clean up industrial society seepage. It is a juggernaut.
You don’t paint a rosy picture. What did you mean about health foods and herbs as a passing fancy.? Do you mean they are a fad?
The herbal industry has definitely been on a roll and lots of people have made lots of money, but as for the restoration of the botanical basis of health care, forget about it. Hardly a dent. I still wait for the return of the subject matter to the curriculum of the training of health professionals. This would change my mind about the fad phenomenon. Until then, it is still fringe and suspect, in terms of the structure of health education and delivery. There is little hope for an integrative medicine.
You said you see hope in the Chadwick Garden. You said it gave you and others a second chance and yet you despair.
Chadwick did give us a second chance. I don’t deny that, just when we thought it was all over. We were able to step outside of the self-destructive trend and become neo-Vitalists and step into an organic garden and affirm this best of all possible worlds, in spite of the destruction going on around us, and take Goethe’s motto for our own–we were in Arcadia.
Even though you are still a part of the self-destruction?
Of course! Everyone is who lives in this social order. How can you escape it? Now it is worldwide. Look at the effect of Chernobyl on the Lapps and the reindeer, just to juxtapose an ancient native people with an industrial society disaster. The destruction of the rainforests. Acid rain. Mercury contamination. Oil spill. Endangered species. Massive pollution everywhere you look. Think of the difficulty of transforming the oil and gas economy, which is soon to run its course, in order to effect the transition to electricity and solar power–that gives you a good idea of how entrenched the current industrial power structure is. I’ve been involved in electric vehicle technology for about five years and it is very slow in coming about.
Give me an example from your own experience of the self-destructive trend.
One comes immediately to mind. Finally, under Chadwick’s influence, we turned our backyard lawn into a garden and we grew lots of vegetables and salads. I noticed my wife was buying them from the supermarket rather than picking them in our own backyard and I thought, my god, I have to get a supermarket cart and a check out stand in order to go into my own back yard and pick the produce to eat for dinner that night.
You mean you were programmed so completely to buy produce from the store.
Exactly. It was a horrible realization.
Chadwick understood all this?
Completely. He was old-fashioned about it, almost a Luddite. He ranted and raved about the destruction of taste as a symptom of our decline. He ranted and raved about all of the shortcomings we all took for granted. But most of all he would talk about the marvels of natural processes. He would talk about the little electrical-like veins in strawberries and their relation to our taste buds, and on and on. He loved revealing mysteries of nature like the nuptial flight of the Queen Bee which he would act out before a startled audience. There was a quality of a wizard about him. John Cage perceived it. Norman O. Brown recognized it. Jacqueline Onslow-Ford communed with it. John Jeavons was drawn to it. Countless students committed their lives to it. Birds came and sat on his shoulder–I saw it with my own eyes.
Did he drive a car?
It’s one of my best stories. He drove a bicycle. A sturdy Raleigh. Then someone gave him a car and on the driver’s door was painted: ╥This Too Can Be Yours╙. One day he was going down Bay Street from the campus and a policeman stopped him for speeding, five miles an hour over the limit. Chadwick got out of the car, flipped him the keys, pointed to the sign on the door, and said, “You can read!”, and stalked off. The officer told him to stop and pulled his gun on Alan, who proceeded to walk over, disarm the officer, hit him, knock him down, throw the gun away, and leave. Well, he had to appear in court. When the judge heard the story and looked at this Shakespearean thespian in his finest blue serge suit that actually looked like a reject from Good Will, he called the officer over and bawled him out–“You arrested this distinguished gentleman, you drew your gun on this distinguished gentleman, you were disarmed by this distinguished gentleman–he took your gun away? You should be ashamed of yourself.”–and dismissed the case. We all cheered and should have carried Alan out on our shoulders.
Didn’t you box with Chadwick once in a while?
Much to my regret. He was like a Tasmanian Devil. He came at you like a windmill gone mad, arms all flailing with a wild fury. He liked throwing clumps of soil at students just to be a mean tease and I remember when Rory lobbed one back and hit Chadwick right on the bean. It was a moment. Chadwick liked him after that. He liked it when you stood up to him, took in the fire, got some steel in your spine. He tested your mettle and almost no one at the university even knew what that was. I watched boys become men under the pressure.
What were the main influences on Chadwick?
His mother was an Anthroposophist, as the story goes, and Rudolf Steiner visited their estate called Puddleston, which we thought no longer existed, but has been restored by a wealthy family. My friend, Alan’s grand nephew, Richard Senior, visited there and showed me photos of its restoration. Chadwick told me he received some lessons in raspberry production from Steiner when he was a boy, although you didn’t know if he made it up, he was such a Baron Munchausen. I didn’t really think that, other people did. I enjoyed the Chadwick Myth and reveled in the legendary. The Steiner influence was infra dig; he never made much of it. The Garden spoke for itself. It was a place of incomparable beauty and fecundity–you could see the Great Chain of Being there and climb right up to heaven. I used to get up early and go up at sunrise and pick flowers with the students. Those were the days. All the flowers were set out in a kiosk across from the garden and anyone could pick up a bouquet for their office on their way in to the campus and students would come down and get bouquets for their rooms. Once you saw the sacrifice behind this give-away you never got over it–it initiated me into thinking long and hard about an economy of gift. Everything was given away. It was my initiation into an economy of gift which returned to me in the Homeless Garden Project.
What did you think of the students at UCSC.
They were wonderful. I called them “Oceans of Desire”. It was a good metaphor, expressive of the ’60’s, when an awesome longing went up from so many, albeit with a psychedelic edge. It was another lament for me because the institution was not in tune with it. The longing went unsatisfied. The University was simply waiting for critical mass when the place would click as another campus in the system of campuses. And, of course, the Vietnam War politicized it and the repression set in. I went back up a few years ago, sort of sneaked back in and gave a course with Ralph Abraham in the History Of Mathematics, on one of our favorites–John Dee, the philosopher, mathematician, and visionary, of the British Empire, under Queen Elizabeth I.
It must have been strange for you.
I felt like Rip Van Winkle. Over twenty years had passed. And my red beard had turned white. It took me a few days to get the new metaphor that described the new generation of students and then it came to me like a revelation–“Abandoned Waifs”. To effect the look, they get their clothes from discard boxes at laundromats. Grunge is in. My nephew, Willard Ford, who was in the class, took me aside after the first lecture and told me to watch out what I said. He wanted to caution me. I innocently asked why. He said everything was monitored for racism, sexism, and class. He said it like an ideological formula. I thought I had stepped into Brave New World or Animal Farm, the University had become a negative utopia. I said you mean the content of the course is incidental to my stepping on a politically incorrect land mine or into just plain dog shit? “Sure”, he said. “Wake up, Rip!” From then on, I hallucinated a snapped shut sphincter hovering over the students’ heads in the classroom, like a surrealist painting, as if taunting me to poke it to see just how snapped shut–a far cry from the openness and generosity of spirit of decades before: from “oceans of desire” to “abandoned waifs”.
So your career was sacrificed on the altar of the Physicalist/Vitalist conflict?
That’s what people tell me. How could I be tolerated at a college devoted to natural science and pursue the line of thought I had discovered? Besides, I was identified with Religious Studies as the Founding Chairman, which almost none of the scientists at my college wanted to support, and I taught in the Graduate Program-the History of Consciousness–which the scientists thought was just more frou frou. So I had three strikes against me.
It sounds like the entire knowledge production system was organized against you.
It looks that way. It was a bitter pill to swallow to get drummed out over publish or perish as the cover story for my starting an organic garden, after I had cut my teeth at Harvard and M.I.T .
So you have developed the Physicalist/vitalist conflict into a major critique of the organization of knowledge, the fate of botany as a science, the hardening of what counts for knowledge under the model of experimental laboratory protocols and the sequence of events in terms of the steps characterizing the Physicalist victory.
The history is pretty clear. There is an account given by Hayek in his: The Counter Revolution Of Science, although we can begin the thread of our historical narrative with an account of the development of botanic gardens in the Renaissance and the establishment of scientific academies. The development can begin with Francis Bacon and his reorganization of knowledge–The Great Instauration– which we can pursue when we develop the theme of the rise of botanic gardens in the Renaissance: from the Garden of Eden and the recreation of paradise in great civic botanic gardens in the transition from medieval herb gardens to the development of scientific academies and the eventual triumph of Physicalism. Hayek describes how the French technical schools created a new type of human being– the technical engineer of industrial society. This was the outcome and triumph of the Physicalist trend: the French engineer.
So the Botanic Garden/Arcadian/Edenic beginnings of the modern period in the European Renaissance prepared the way for the development of industrial society and technocracy?
Precisely. These are the critical themes for my sketch. Francis Bacon is a key figure as is John Dee. The English Renaissance is a focal point because the themes are so powerful, given Elizabeth I as the guiding light of the movement. It was an incredible period. Dee is the tail end of the hermetic tradition and Bacon is where it turns around, although the esoteric symbolism is still intact, represented by the alchemy of Newton. It is as if the esoteric, occult side, is a symbol of the historical ferment, out of which a new world was being born, the brave new world that would lead to industrial society, the world of science and technology. Bacon was an initiate into these mysteries, the secrets of Arcadia, nurtured by a brotherhood of poet-scientist-adepts of which Dee is the relatively unknown central symbolic figure. All the occult streams, indicative of this brotherhood, converge in him. He is the Renaissance Magus. I take great pleasure in saying I know something about this period and its meaning because it takes a long time for the meaning to come clear. Much of it is still unknown territory for me, the ciphers, the actual practise of alchemy, and angel-conjuring, but there is so much information and interpretation available it is now possible to enter this arcane world and not get completely lost.
Why was Dee consigned too obscurity and everything he represented?
It is a question of the occult and the esoteric going underground, being repressed, and rejected. King James is a good example in his effort to suppress witchcraft. It is definitely a turning point. Causabon, the editor of Dee’s angel-conjuring diaries, is a good example of the debunking that set in with his accusation that Dee was a dupe as well as a charlatan, especially in his angel conjuring and his subordination to Kelly, his skryer–the technical term for crystal ball gazing or angel conjuring–Dee’s sidekick, who had a very bad reputation and was punished by having his ears cut off, so he wore a funny cap to cover the holes on either side of his head. It didn’t help that Dee was imprisoned under Queen Mary for being a sorcerer. He was lucky to have survived.
So the trend is a reductionist trend, leading to the French engineer who knows nothing of these occult streams in his service to industrial and technical society.
Once you focus on Dee as the end of the occult stream, the end of the polymath and the adept, in almost everything and go through Newton, who, even though he was a devoted alchemist, kept it all in the closet and away from public view, as if he knew the times had changed and occult sciences had to go underground or be abandoned, and then on to the French, after the Revolution, the stage is set with the scenes and actors in place. When they put the image of Athena, as the goddess of wisdom, on the altar of the Royal Abbaye of St. Denis, after emptying out the royal tombs and throwing the bones of the Kings and Queens of France in the surrounding ditches, that was it. Sacrilege was the order of the day.
So the plantocrat anticipated and preceded the eventual technocrat and there is a direct line from the botanic garden to the experimental laboratory anyhow.
I’ll get to that. We’ll go back to the establishment of botanic gardens in the European Renaissance and their ambiguity in terms of the conflict between the restoration of paradise or Eden and the origins of natural science which gives us the transition from plantocrat to technocrat. Note the irony. First, the theme of Eden and Arcadia, represented in world-wide exploration and the period of the plant hunters, who are looking for Eden and every new species they can find, especially plants of medicinal and commercial value. Second, the civic botanic garden as the compromise when they failed to locate the geographical Eden. Build your own Eden right here in the middle of town and plant it with the new species brought back by the hunters.
Third, the development of science within the botanical gardens as the seed beds for astronomy and chemistry. The trend is clear. Once you get to the French Academies and especially the development of the Ecole Polytechnique, as stated by Hayek and others, the curriculum precluded the humanities and thus eliminated what makes a person educated in the classical sense.
Hence, the obtuse engineer of industrial society, basically a know-nothing when it comes to culture, who could care less about the consequences. Just give me a bridge to build.
So the technical or Physicalist trend had an effect on the organization of knowledge already in the 18th century?
A wholesale effect. In fact, it set up the bargain counter sale of the humanities. Hannah Arendt has a great phrase for the sell-out sale on the bargain counter of Western thought–the humanities end up at a garage sale; it sounds terrific in German, but I can’t re-locate it or I would quote it. I have pieced together the narrative line of my account from a variety of sources. Once you get the drift you can find the missing pieces–they appear as though summoned. The sequence of the literature is one of my best efforts. There is a story to be told and a host of scholars who have contributed to it. The key made it possible for me to elaborate the line, key added to key, from the Physicalist/Vitalist conflict and the synthesis of urea , to the themes of the Ontology of Life versus the Ontology of Death, to the role of Existentialism. It is one finely explicated cultural history with the history of great botanic gardens as a backdrop, including the themes of Eden and Arcadia. Finding Armytage was a big help. And then Hayek. They gave me the development of the garden academies and the plantocracy into the technical education of the Ecole Polytechnique and the Industrial Engineer. The French botanic garden is where they come together. It is one of the highest triumphs of French culture.
Continue the line.
“Technology had found its clerisy in the academies –220 of them by 1790. …Collecting, measuring and examining everything they could see or lay hands on, these academicians devised telescopes and microscopes, experimented, travelled and wrote.
Though such groups appeared at the same time and in the same places as the botanic gardens, they were in every sense, discrete. And they become more discrete as they wrote about, as well as to, each other. In the eighteenth century theirs was truly a commanding world view. …’an international general staff endowed with a strong esprit de corps’. ”
This is Armytage, who tells the story up to Hayek, whom he quotes, in The Rise of the Technocrat. Hayek makes it clear that it was in France that the scientific intellectual appeared as a new type of man of the emerging technology, with training at the Ecole Polytechnique, a school set up to produce and train the new type. The military metaphors are not just arbitrary either–it was a type of war and it laid the foundations for the military-industrial combine, Eisenhower is famous for exposing. A war against nature and then a war between contending super-powers. Here is what it took to produce such a human being to serve such a machine or The Pentagon of Power, as Mumford calls it:
“Its physico-centric curriculum (students studied mathematics, physics and chemistry exclusively) produced a new type of man, ‘appearing’, according to Professor Hayek, ‘for the first time in history’. Having never learned to interpret human life or growth in terms of mankind’s literary past (since their training did not include history, literature, or languages), they tended to see life in scientific terms. As its self-appointed spokesman Count Henri de Saint Simon (1760-1825), expressed it: ‘We must examine and co-ordinate it all from the point of view of Physicism’. ‘Physicism’ according to Saint-Simon would need a new physical ‘clergy’ to both interpret and organize society on scientific lines.” “Thus a whole generation grew up to whom that great storehouse of social wisdom, the only form indeed in which an understanding of the social processes achieved by the greatest minds is transmitted, the great literature of all ages, was a closed book. For the first time in history that new type appeared which as the product of the German Real Schule and of similar institutions was to become so important and influential in the later nineteenth and the twentieth century: the technical specialist who was regarded as educated because he had passed through difficult schools but who had little or no knowledge of society, its life, growth, problems and values, which only the study of history, literature and languages can give.” Hayek: p. 196
“It has been well described how the whole of the teaching at the Ecole Polytechnique was penetrated with the positivist spirit. The very type of engineer with his characteristic outlook, ambitions, and limitations was here created. That synthetic spirit which would not recognize sense in anything that had not been deliberately constructed, that love of organization that springs from sources of military and engineering practices, the aesthetic predilection for everything that had been consciously constructed over anything that had ‘just grown,’ was a strong new element which was added to–and in the course of time even began to replace–the revolutionary ardor of the young politicians.” p. 202-3
You must jump in your seat when you find such passages. They are like buzz words for your synthetic construction versus organic growth.
Yes, it’s true. It is like a treasure hunt. The step from Williams to Prest to Armytage to Hayek to Voegelin is one fine progression of thought, let me tell you, all grist for my mill and don’t forget, I went from Harvard to M.I.T., to teach humanities because they wanted to put a little frosting on the nerd, so we gave them Homer.
Who do you recommend for the clearest presentation of the spiritual deformation under Physicalism?
I think Eric Voegelin is the best for the most succinct understanding. He makes it clear why the spiritual dimension, the dimension of depth, as Tillich called it, the dynamics of ultimate concern, flattened out and became banal. Tillich was equally prescient and so was Rosenstock Huessy. They make one rare trio of thinkers on this issue and I consider them my finest teachers, along with Howard Hong, at St. Olaf, the great Kierkegaard scholar, who was my first teacher of philosophy and my guiding light.
What does Voegelin have to say?
Here is Voegelin’s summary:
“The symbols of ideological dogmatism dominating the contemporary thought of Western societies do not express the reality of knowledge but the rebellion against it. They do not attempt to draw men into participation by persuasion; rather, they constitute a language of obsession designed to prevent the contact with reality, a language developed by men who have closed themselves against the ground. The access to consciousness as man’s center of order is blocked massively by the ideologies of Positivism, Marxism, historicism, scientism, behaviorism, also by means of psychologizing and sociologizing, by world intentionalistic methodologies and phenomenologies. For in the symbolism of the rebellions one cannot find the logos of the reality of knowledge, unless it be in the mode of second reality which is present even in the rebellion and its symbols, but which can be recognized as such only from the reality of knowledge. The nihilistic rebellion cannot be overcome on its own level of experiences and symbols, for instance, by means of a criticism of ideology, culture, or the times, as attempted by intellectuals who no longer feel easy in their situation. Such attempts can lead only to a confused stirring around in the nothingness of lost reality. The non-noetic thought about order of the kind that rebellion produces offers no point of contact to the noesis. Anamnesis, p. 187-88.
What does noesis mean?
It is the Greek word for knowledge. Logos and noesis are structurally related. Logos is the rational order of reality which makes language possible and noesis is the rational faculty for knowledge. This classic order is now under attack by deconstruction and its criticism of logo-centrism and the onto-theological tradition–my tradition! I can see now how Kierkegaard is a key figure in this development. His pseudonymous authorship takes on a new meaning in the light of Voegelin’s remarks, as though hypothetical or fictitious figures appear on the scene who have no reality or I should say no historical actuality. They are representatives of the disturbed bourgeois intellectual who are devoid of the inwardness and spiritual subjectivity his Edifying Discourses address. Once you get the sense of the damage done to human spirituality you start to wonder about the dark side of the science establishment.
Do you think science is evil?
I have thought about it for a long time. It is an irresistible conclusion, once you get the drift. Clearly, not science as such. But this specific ideological trend within science generally, what is known as scientism: the ideological stronghold of science that has become all-consuming and is now under a strong attack–Physicalism. There is clearly an evil side to it in its anti-spiritual revolt. And it has brought us to the late stage of the self-destruction of our society–industrial society. Karl Jaspers is the only one I know who has addressed the problem head on. He has an essay entitled: “Is Science Evil?” He backs off and doesn’t carry it through. Erich Voegelin has more courage. In his “The Origins of Scientism”, he gets positively nasty. He calls the Physicists eunuchs, having undergone castration of their spiritual life in order to enter the ranks and take the Oath, the castrati of Saint Simon’s clerisy, the version of a modern priesthood. Instead of a monastic vow, they take the Physicalist Oath. He puts the issue as well as anyone in his formulation of the scientistic creed:
1. the assumption that the mathematized science of natural phenomena is a model science to which all other sciences ought to conform;
2. that all realms of being are accessible to the methods of the sciences of phenomena;
3. that all reality which is not accessible to sciences of phenomena is either irrelevant or, in the more radical form of the dogma, illusionary, nonsense, in terms of technical logic.
4. (I would add a fourth) constructed models that are self-referential as no one has a clue about a real reference–reality is what anyone thinks it is–it is up for grabs.
He would be the first to go on record in the affirmation that science is evil in this precise sense of positivistic scientism, what is known as Physicalism. He calls it an intellectual attitude that draws on the prestige of the mathematized sciences in the service of an antispiritual revolt for the purpose of civilizational destruction. That is as well as the matter can be put. It is what Page Smith meant by killing the spirit, even though he restricted his critique to the University and higher education.
Voegelin also cites Hayek’s: “The Counter-Revolution of Science” and “Scientism and the Study of Society.” Economica, vol. 8 and 9-11.
He makes it clear that “we are still far from a full comprehension of the social and political disaster that scientism has worked and still is working, and we are equally far from a full understanding of the sources from which the movement draws its strength.” This is exactly what I have concentrated on for the last forty years.
Didn’t you know Voegelin at Harvard
Yes, I was teaching at M.I.T., when he was giving courses at Harvard and I went over to hear him lecture. You had the sense that he could communicate sources like no one else. Aristotle is very difficult to understand and Voegelin could deliver him on a plate. Blue plate special. He had been a big influence on me because I was at sea at Divinity School, studying for my exam in Old Testament theology, which was a mass of confusion, when his first volume of Order and History came out: Israel and Revelation. It was the answer to a prayer. He is one of the best interpreters of the history of cultural symbolism I have ever read. As I mentioned, I have had a series of great teachers: Howard Hong, Paul Tillich, Paul Ricoeur, Erich Voegelin, and Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, and Hans Jonas, all of whom I had the good fortune to know personally, with the exception of Jonas. I had coffee with Voegelin after every lecture when he would hold court with a few graduate students who would ask him if so and so was a gnostic, which I found very tiresome. Voegelin had a bad side which was his politics, a very profound version of William Buckley, whom I abhor and he had a big stick to hit the spooks with and the spooks were the gnostics, all the know-it-ails in the history of thought, but for him. I should probably be more careful about this as I have not made a study of his political thought and my uninformed opinion is an impression made on me from Voegelin’s critics. I don’t want it to cloud my appreciation for his work in cultural symbolism.
Would you say that Voegelin is your best interpretive source for the theme of the self-destruction of industrial society?
Yes, thanks for asking that. It has vexed me for years-how to adequately describe the dynamic or even demonic structure of self-destruction, which is actually how Tillich defines the demonic. Here is just one quote from Voegelin that expresses the point well:
“Under the impact of the modern advance of science, however, this core [of rational-utilitarianism] has acquired the characteristics of a cancerous growth. …the mass creed that the utilitarian dominion over nature through science should and will become the exclusive preoccupation of man, as well as the exclusive determinant for the structure of society. In the nineteenth century this idea of utilitarian exclusiveness crystallized in the belief that the dominion of man over man would ultimately be replaced by the dominion of man over nature, and that the government of men would be replaced by the administration of things. At this point we have to guard against the error into which critics of the totalitarian movements have fallen so frequently–the belief that an idea is politically unimportant because philosophically it is stark nonsense. The idea that structure and problems of human existence can be superseded in historical society by the utilitarian segment of existence is certainly plain nonsense; it is equivalent to the idea that the nature of man can be abolished without abolishing man, or that the spiritual order can be taken out of existence without disordering existence. Any attempt at its realization can lead only to the self-destruction of a society.”
This is the evil that is science or Physicalism?
As Voegelin says: “Here we can see in the raw the fascination of power that exudes from the new science: it is so overwhelming that it blunts one’s awareness of the elementary problems of human existence; science becomes an idol that will magically cure the evils of existence and transform the nature of man.”
And then to add insult to injury, the notion prevails that obvious calamities which accompany the age of science must be cured by more science. I’m sure that Kenneth Thimann, the Provost of my college at UCSC, Crown College, thought this about the consequences of Agent Orange. Science produced it and more science will take care of it. Just be patient. Which is difficult to tell a patient suffering from its effects.
Is there an evil side to Vitalism?
That is an interesting question. On a trip to Pittsburgh, while visiting my friends, the Von Eckartsbergs, a friend of theirs who is into philosophy of science starts to chat and I tell her about my interest in the Physicalist/Vitalist conflict in the system of the sciences and she says: “Oh, you’re interested in Nazi Science!” That was a jaw dropper. Nazi science was Vitalist. It skewed everything for a moment. There is a recent book, very muddled and wrong-headed, almost a caricature of a scholarly work, as if done by a perverse comedian, on the involvement of the Nazi movement in Steiner’s biodynamics through Rudolf Hess who was an Anthropop. So you see how hard it is to keep things straight or your head screwed on right.
Wait a minute. You didn’t answer the question. Is Vitalism evil or does it have an evil element?
If Vitalism was restored in Nazi science, then, of course, there were evil aspects. Nazi science was evil. I don’t know enough about it, but for the book I mentioned, which is so garbled it is impossible to untangle. I refer to Vitalism as the representative of organic nature and what Physicalism refuted and renounced. You asked and I can think of a counterpart example which I gave, but that doesn’t falsify the central meaning as I use the term, although anything touched by Nazism is tainted. It is undoubtedly partly why the term is difficult to reclaim.
But don’t you make that judgment about Physicalism, which you seem to see as a unitary phenomenon.
This is a very important opener. I can see a whole nest of issues through the opening which I would have to think through and have not done so. I gave you the original lump, the various affiliated trends or points of view, early on. To enter into a critique of Physicalism would entail a very detailed study. I have two recent books on the subject with an enormous bibliography. It would take some months just to get up to speed on the literature of Physicalism, but I don’t have the interest to enter the technical discussons. It is boring to me. I would have to study Willard Van Ormand Quine, who is considered the leading philosopher of the subject, my enemy. I would rather eat tripe, the only food that makes me sick. So it is a standard philosophy of science subject matter. I admit I gloss over all that and mostly use the term as a key to the subject matter at its most formal, which is why I was dismayed that Kuhn, whose death was announced today, by the way, did not fill out the historical case. His New York Times obituary even mentions his interest in the historical case; he used simple anecdotal or illustrative examples rather than the broad sweep of the two contenders I see as paradigmatic. It is too bad because Physicalism and Vitalism would have given such teeth to his work, although, as I said, I can see why he didn’t do it because he would have been so partial to Physicalism. His formalistic account lacks the cultural context of the sociology of knowledge.
So you sweep up the issues into a generalized discussion of Physicalism and Vitalism hoping not to distort the issues too much through over-simplification.
That’s a good way to put it. I hope I succeed. But at what? At this level, this interview, it is simply a matter of talking about it. I would have to write a carefully constructed account in order to make my case. This interview is the easy way. Here I can sketch it out and hope the reader takes it from there or waits for any improved sequel. It is more a matter of opening the issue, looking down from above, reluctant to enter the fray, although that should be done, but it would take so much time, painstakingly working out the issues step by step, from either side. I have to admit, I don’t have time for that. I give the schematic and that provides a basic orientation.
I can see that there is a certain level of discussion you have carved out for yourself, a certain level of cultural analysis, where it is not necessary to exhaust the meaning of key terms in order to know what they mean. It is like using the word idealism, hopefully correctly, which is seldom the case, without entering the ocean of materials on the debate over what it is and what it means.
Most academics have their guns cocked ready to shoot as soon as someone says the equivalent of “bird”. Tillich can help here in his distinguishing between two types of meaning: definitional and configurational. I like the second type even though it is not as esteemed as the former. It is the old conflict between univocal and equivocal, to which Paul Ricoeur has devoted so much thought in his work on hermeneutics and his interest in symbol and metaphor. Specificity of meaning and a gestalt of meaning are the two sides: nail it down versus let it breathe. Meaningful pictures of issues are often more instructive than formal definitions, although that’s where cognitive knowledge in the form of propositional content nails the point. Unfriendly interlocutors can always play dumb and say: “I don’t see it.” They don’t get the picture. I would prefer one illuminating anecdote to one verifiable proposition, but I have always been more daydreamer than logician.
I also see that you try to reach a larger audience than a strictly academic one and address yourself accordingly to bring them into the story or the account, and then they can go peruse the literature however they care to and make up their own mind.
I don’t see this material taught within a university context because there are too many vested interests involved to get a free hearing and besides it is too generalist, as you say, too interdisciplinary and that is completely against the trend. So my only hope for a hearing is with a wide and fairly well-educated audience who will take me at my word and, as you say, make up their mind. The university is like a prison when it comes to ideas like these.
I suppose you are familiar with Foucault’s discussion of society as a prison?
Yes, it is germane here. I was thinking of him, in fact. I am fond of the superb summary of this theme in Habermas and his discussion of Foucault–how the French, in a given year in the 17th century, over a few months, rounded up all the social undesirables in Paris and locked them up and how the penal institution became the measure of social structure. Voegelin ends his piece on scientism on a reverse Foucault note–the insane have succeeded in locking the sane in the asylum. He notes that the “scientistic utilitarian dream of transforming society into a prison from which no escape was possible began to take shape after the middle of the eighteenth century in the works of Helvetius and Bentham.” (p. 494.) The possibilities of personal escape into the freedom of the spirit was what Chadwick’s Garden represented to a generation of students. This was the liberating effect of “flower-power” and an “economy of gift”, based on an “ethic of superabundance”.
Isn’t there a Chadwick style garden at the San Francisco Prison?
Yes. It is a famous project run by Catherine Sneed, although none of the convicts can eat any of the produce they grow. Can you beat that? The prison only allows for pre-processed institutional food, which, when you think of it, sounds consistent. Why give criminals good organic produce even if they grow their own? All of the organic farm produce is sold on the market. Although it defies belief, it is what you might expect.
So Chadwick was a gift and he gave it all away as a gift.
He taught me the meaning of the principle of plenitude in an economy of gift, where you have it spilling over in your lap, heaped up, more than enough for everyone, as in the words of the Apostle Paul: the ethic of superabundance. I take this very seriously. The slogan for this economy of gift is “too much zucchini”, which is always the case if you have ever grown any.
Doesn’t “too much zucchini” refute theories of the limitation of food production like Malthus?
Chadwick and his food production system–the Biodynamic and the French Intensive– is the refutation of Malthus. But you have to remember, the Chadwick System is dependent on an economy of gift, not the economy of greed and scarce resources that Malthus depended on in his population theory. Malthus is the bad penny in the capitalist camp. Paul Ricoeur describes the Chadwick economy of gift in his essay on “The Golden Rule.” I was looking through an old manuscript I started and didn’t finish about our first nonprofit–U.S.A. (University Services Agency). It is called “How To Become A Spiritual Millionaire, Where Money Is No Object.” I was amazed to find some of the seeds of these themes in the text which is over twenty-five years old. I plan to finish it and put it on my home page on the Internet.
I know that this leads into your association with J. C. Penny and the Golden Rule theme and so on, but let’s leave that for later. What about Goethe? You refer to him as the source for the Chadwick tradition.
Goethe was one of the major Vitalist figures of the 18th- 19th centuries, which makes him a central reference point. The link to Goethe, for us, was Rudolf Steiner, whose system of food and flower production–Biodynamics–Chadwick practiced. This represented the Vitalist tradition I am at pains to elaborate. Goethe was the inspiration for Steiner, so we had a Vitalist line from Goethe through Steiner to Chadwick. We should have had a baseball team; we could have specialized in triple plays.
Wasn’t Steiner an editor of Goethe’s writings?
Steiner was the editor of Goethe’s scientific writings as a young scholar at the Weimar Archive and because Goethe was a great botanist and wrote extensively on botany and even coined the term “morphology”, Steiner picked up Goethe’s botany as the source for his Biodynamics.
This is an inference on your part?
Of course. I assume that Steiner, as Goethe’s editor, familiar with his botanic writings, developed Biodynamics out of this interest. Think of the symbolic aspect. Goethe loses in his effort to refute Newton on optics and a theory of color and tries to stabilize botany against the Newtonian assault and he gets a clairvoyant–Rudolf Steiner–one of the most controversial figures of the next century– to carry the ball with his botanical interests. This spiritualist direction of Vitalism is very difficult to assess as Steiner is such a mixed bag as is the case with anything occult and esoteric. To anyone unsympathetic, it looks like a form of insanity. But, in Steiner’s case, there was such a strong creative impulse in so many diverse areas, he commands a certain measure of respect. I am always drawn to the analogy in architecture with Frank Lloyd Wright and the theme of the organic. I was amazed to learn long ago that Olgivanna, Wright’s last wife, was a student of Gurdieff, who was another representative of the esoteric tradition and even more controversial than Steiner, partly because he was a tyrannical bully.
But you seem to emphasize the scholarly side of Steiner and his relation to Goethe as the source for the Vitalist stream that came to Santa Cruz.
Steiner was very much aware of the Vitalist orientation of Goethe, as evidenced, for instance, in his effort to refute Newton’s Optics, in his experiments with prisms and his theory of color. Steiner wrote a good book called: Goethe The Scientist. I’ll bet it isn’t read by anyone in higher education today where Steiner is universally ignored, let alone the scientific interests of Goethe, although there is some scholarly literature on the color theory. Goethe saw Newton as the bad guy–the Arch-Physicalist, in spite of his closet alchemical interests, which Goethe would have shared. Here there is a funny cross-over. Goethe trying to be a scientist and expending vast effort on it with painstaking experiments and Newton spending more time in the closet on alchemy than anything else and trying to keep it all secret because it defied the law of gravity.
I can see how these themes lead into endless tributaries and unending inquiries.
You have to realize that some of this is my own construction built upon what I have learned from the sources over the years. I can pretty well pinpoint what I have formulated and what I have relied upon in the literature as the foundation for my studies. I have a good retention of the scholarly discussion which I continue to pursue. After twenty-five years, the list of references gets to be a burden, although I have an appetite for it that grows by what it feeds on. I was just thinking of a book I recently read about the Newton/Goethe color/optics conflict, a great early instance of the Physicalist/Vitalist theme. The bibliography has item after item I would like to read, just on the color theory issue, some of which I have pursued. When you are teaching you get the chance to offer a course or a seminar on such subjects and that gives you the chance to work up the material. I lost that opportunity over twenty-five years ago, so much of my discussion is cursory and lacking in scholarly acumen which research for courses provides as well as discussion with students and colleagues.
What did you learn about the Goethe/Newton conflict?
I remember finding out that Edward Land thought Goethe was right and Newton was wrong and that he had spoken and written on the issue. I called Polaroid to get copies of his articles but they never arrived. Anyhow, I know where to find them. This is an example of the never-ending character of two major ideologies, one victorious in the defeat of the other–the discussion has no end. It is not my interest to penetrate any of the technical discussions, partly because I lack the competence to do so, but it is my interest to be informed of them and pursue them sufficiently so I am familiar with the issues and the scholarly discussion.
So the Physicalist/Vitalist conflict has had great organizing power for your studies?
Very much so. I think it is the key development in the history and philosophy of science and it is so neglected because most scholars line up with Physicalism and the victory over Vitalism as a foregone conclusion. There is no contest. It was decided over a century and a half ago. The defeat and refutation of Vitalism is like beating a dead horse which is a terrific metaphor especially if one thinks of the paper by Freud and the description in Dostoievsky. Physicalist scientists don’t see the implications for the undermining of organic nature and the move from the garden to the lab, from organic integrity to artificial synthesis. It is the classic case of paradigm formation in the structure of scientific revolutions: this is the revolution, which Kuhn never specified in his famous book: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, as we mentioned. He formalized it as though he acceded to the fait accompli. of the victory of Physicalism over Vitalism. He wasn’t going to get caught up in a defense of Vitalism as an acceptable paradigm in order to dramatize and exemplify the revolution in the very historical cases that are the point. I wrote to him about his ignoring the historical case that exemplified his thesis but he never responded. Hardly anyone wants to defend Vitalism, as such, because it is the name of a defeated and rejected point of view–a dead horse. Then it revived in the environmental and ecology movements as the great criticism of industrial society after the Earth Day celebration in 1970.
Do you ever wonder if you’re wrong?
I’m reminded of a talk I gave on the subject at Barnard, at the invitation of Elaine Pagels. Her husband, Heinz Pagels, was in the audience. He was a famous physicist, very tall, very imposing. He was the first to raise his hand and I thought to myself, “oh boy, here it comes”. He got up and said: “Professor Lee, the reason Vitalism lost is because it was wrong!” He said the last word as if it was a winning world series pitch, although for me it was a bean ball. I didn’t know what to say and I was too tired to duck.
I guess I didn’t make a very good case for my view. It is hard to defend a defeated point of view such as Vitalism, especially against a smart physicist. And right and wrong is not the issue for me. This question could open up a larger discussion which leads to one of my favorite themes–the confession of self-delusion. I have learned about the meaning of this confession from Mark’s Gospel and Socrates and the tradition of Negative Theology, also known as Apophatic Theology, represented by Dionysius the Areopagite and Nicholas Cusanus. But this is a particular theme in terms of a special tradition of mystical theology, where self-delusion is a consequence of original sin. I may be wrong about certain facts I have tried to memorize by carefully checking again and again to make sure I have the date right, like 1828. If I had that wrong, say, it would be stunningly embarrassing to me. Such things happen. I may be more off base than wrong about the identity of synthetic and organic urea. I have worried about that and haven’t been able to carry it through to my satisfaction.
You mean synthetic and organic urea could be identical? Wouldn’t that ruin your case?
It would be the difference between arguing at a theoretical level regarding the fate of the integrity of organic nature and a particular aspect or experiment in the history of science. The drift is clear to me even without the hold-out over the identity or difference of synthetic and organic in the case of urea or anything else. I have to penetrate to a level of comprehension of the issues which I feel I have not achieved.