Topoi[1] and Transformation I

Frederick David Abraham©


There are two principal ways in which reflective human beings try, by placing their lives in a larger context, to give sense to those lives. The first is by telling the story of their contributions to a community. . . The second way is to describe themselves as standing in immediate relation to a nonhuman reality. . . I shall say that stories of the former kind exemplify the desire for solidarity, and that stories of the latter kind exemplify the desire for objectivity. . . the search for Truth (Rorty, 1985, 3).


Precisely without claiming mastery, philosophical hermeneutics, with its stress on dialogue rather than system, is filling the void left by philosophy’s foundational project¾its attempt to establish an unshakeable ground of certain knowledge, now for the most part abandoned. In the absence of ultimates and absolutes, we are left with what Gadamer, echoing the German poet Hölderin, called ‘the conversation that we ourselves are’ (1989, 378) (Crucius, 1991, 8).


Might these quotes be saying, among other things, that philosophy is personal, and as tentative conversation, represents our continual efforts to transform ourselves? Would being personal imply that the rational and the emotional are interactive, inseparable aspects of being and philosophy? Do they imply, as Gadamer says, that “understanding is being” (Gadamer, 1967 49); and as Crusius says, that philosophy is “topoi, the generative commonplaces of its thinking?” (Crusius, 1991, 11)


There have been apparently oppositional trends of searching for absolute knowledge (the Eleatics, Plato, Confucius) versus searching for knowledge about diversity and change (Heraclitus, Gorgias, Protagoras, Lao Tzu). I shan’t attempt a review of this history here. The subject is too vast, being involved in almost every philosophy from the Greek cosmologists to the contemporary postmodern and gender-oriented literatures. Could the distinction be partly true and partly false? Many have tried to reconcile them. Xenophanes, was probably the first to try, viewing them as problems of being and becoming[2], and of rest and motion. Due to my interest in nonlinear dynamics, I have viewed them aspects of stability and instability (change). The stage for this distinction was really set by


Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 544-484 B.C.) [who] argued that the entire substance of the world is in a ceaseless process of change, while the Eleatic philosopher Parmenides (c. 540-470) held to the opposing theory that the ultimate substance (Being) is unchanging and unchangeable, permanent (Sahakian, 1968, 6).



Postmodernism and critical theory are heavily concerned with the relationship between emancipation and theory into which the concepts of truth become imbedded (Dennard, 1997; Poster, 1989):


[Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard claim] that the quest for certain truth and the claim of having attained it are the greater dangers. The logocentric philosophical tradition, with its strong assertions about truth, is complicit, for them, in the disasters and abominations of the twentieth-century Western history. On this difficult, even tragic issue of the relation of politics to truth, poststructuralists in general strive for a cosmopolitan position that makes every effort to recognize differences, even uncomfortable or disagreeable ones, and for a theory of truth that is wary of patriarchal and ethnocentric tendencies that hide behind a defense of reason as certain, closed, totalized. Above all, poststructuralists want to avoid forms of political oppression that are legitimized by resorts to reason, as this kind of legitimation has been, in their view, one of the paradoxical and lamentable developments of recent history (Poster, 1989, 16).


William Irwin Thompson (1996), speaking of cultural transformations (using bifurcation metaphors from chaos theory), was also speaking about personal transformations by implication from the life of LaoTzu and its effect in turn on his own life. He contrasts the rigid approaches of Confucius to the “flow of the Tao and the anarchic wisdom of Taoism”.


Loa Tzu’s celebration of ‘the mysterious female’ is in direct opposition to the dominant culture of his time. The world around Lao Tzu is the patriarchal world of warriorship, of hierarchy and of geometrical order. . .


Nativistic movements are revitalization movements that seek to take a culture back to its roots in a mythically recreated past. When a traditional culture is at the edge of extinction, then a mystery school springs up that seeks to go back to the ways of the ancestors as a way of avoiding the decadence of the moderns. . .


The nativistic movement is a universal phenomenon. When a traditional culture is at the edge of extinction, and when a new technological civilization is consolidating its conquest and dominance, then the last light of the old flares up. Most often the nativistic leader is the divided man who in his own parentage feels the intense conflict between the dominant culture of the father and the ancient culture of the mother (Thompson, 1996, 248-250).


However, could revitalizations paradoxically, in seeking a personal sense of topoi and self, not simply revert to an old order, but incorporate new ideas and desires along with traditional elements in a forward evolution? The myth presented below is an example of a “mythically recreated past”, generated from the tensions of new scientific ideas impinging on a hegemonic religious institution (the Catholic Church). I stumbled on it when searching for roots of science before Galileo, whose own fascinating story reveals similar dynamics. Going back to Roger Bacon I was startled to discover that teaching Aristotle in Paris had been banned by the Pope, the very opposite of the problem with Galileo. This paradox took me back another century, from the 13th to the 12th, when a book that simply jumped off a library shelf onto my cart when researching Bacon. Galileo was condemned for, among other things, the challenge his finding presented to Aristotelian notions. Bacon was brought from Oxford to Paris to teach Aristotle as the Church began to realize that Aristotle might be employed to their purposes rather than presenting a threat, a realization that had been growing over the past century. [Why is left as an exercise for the reader.]


There were at least three threads of intellectual concepts at the early 12th century. The traditional scholastic approach of Augustine, the NeoPlatonic ideas of Plotinus, and the scientific ideas perhaps best expressed by William of Auvergne. These three threads are not independent. Now, I want to share my preliminary explorations of the little book that jumped off the shelf on 


The Cosmographia[3] by Bernardis Silvestris, circa 1143-8[4]


The Cultural Context


Increased contact with the Arabic and Judaic world led to an explosion of translation of Greek texts into the world of Latin, scholastic Europe. These and other cultural and technical changes led to profound impacts on intellectual developments.


The twelfth century was a turning point in medieval civilization; so marked was the transformation that took place in the material conditions of life that it has been possible to speak of a ‘technological revolution.’ Encouraged by the breakup of the feudal monopoly of the soil, by the economic and political emancipation of urban artisans organized into guilds, and by the active mobility of men and goods in a market economy, the use and spread of new techniques of production and commerce profoundly altered not only the material side of life but also the modes of perception, sensibility, and representation that pertain to the life of the spirit. Did not Aristotle base his analysis of change and becoming upon the analogy of the artisan and his work? (M.-D Chenu, 1968, 39; quoted in Stock, 5).


 Scientific ideas [in the Middle Ages] frequently underwent evolution within the framework of myth and appeared less often as total revolutions in world-view than as internal, structural changes within the myths themselves. In this sense, the Cosmographia was the introduction of a relatively new myth of the creation of the world and of man into European philosophical literature. (3)


During the early twelfth century when it was written, certain intellectual developments took place which, by general historical agreement facilitated the emergence of a scientific sensibility. Owing to the translation of hitherto unavailable doctrines like the Aristotelian physics and Ptolemaic astronomy, a new emphasis was placed on the quadrivium[5], while, within the European intellectual tradition itself, interest in logical rationalism and in mathematics helped to lay the groundwork for a scientific methodology. At the same time a number of important technological innovations were made, particularly in agriculture and in warfare [and in commerce, urbanization, educational institutions, etc]. These served to increase man’s control over the natural environment and, as a result, to alter his perception of his place in the natural order. More generally, there was a growth within medieval culture as a whole of a certain existential naturalism, a this-worldliness which balanced the tendency towards mysticism in the Augustinian tradition. This sensibility makes its appearance in literature, in cathedral sculpture, and indirectly in intellectual debates”  (3-4).


“One perspective through which these intellectual changes may profitably be viewed is that of tradition and innovation, of classical form adapting to the new naturalism. On the one hand, there was a purely classical revival, affecting not only literature but law, theology, and the various sciences. On the other hand, the interest in the visible, empirically definable world insured that naturalism interpenetrated the classical revival in numerous ways. One finds the new relation to antiquity expressed in commentaries on the bible and classical authors; in encyclopedias designed to embrace the accumulated knowledge of centuries but now including a higher degree of information about the real world; in monumental sculpture, in which the saints and the heroes of antiquity are not eternal archetypes, models of wisdom and of action, but begin to resemble the citizens of medieval towns. (6).


Not . . . a radical break with tradition as in the Renaissance—the classical debate on myth and science, which had really begun with Aristotle’s critique of Plato’s Timaeus, was reopened in a new context. The question, first of all, was whether the intellectual forms inherited in tradition could any longer serve as a useful foundation for a scientific understanding of the universe.  The responses varied greatly. The tendency towards conservatism in literary format insured that most authors expressed their new ideas in discourses which possessed recognizable links with antiquity. A great many literary forms from the classical and, in particular the late Latin world were revived for the purpose: the dialogue, the satura (or prosimetrum), the encyclopedia, the commentary, and more rarely, the epic and the myth itself.  (6-7).


Yet beneath the use of such classical formats for uniting traditional and original ideas lay a deeper problem: whether science, or the individual sciences, would not have to evolve languages which suited their own internal requirements. In particular, as rational modes of thought became more familiar, and as the natural-philosophic corpus, swelled by translations, increased in size, new approaches began to be made to the chief problem between myth and science: the creation of the world and of man. . . Historical genesis emphasized the role of an omnipotent creator in whose beneficent image both the world and man were created [e.g., the book of Genesis]; structural[6] genesis, while not denying the existence of the creator, emphasized the creational modalities of the existing world, its laws and principles of procreation [e.g., Timaeus]. (7-8).


Perhaps Stock understates at this point some elements of the contextual dynamics. One of these is the extent to which tensions between conservative and liberal elements in the church led to the use of myth, metaphor, and allegory to hide the full impact of the innovations being deployed, as he later discusses. This may have been even more important than in not having new language communities developed or accepted to present the new scientific ideas. Another contextual dynamic might have been the extent to which personality factors, as mentioned above and which feature heavily in postmodern literature which in turn leans heavily on psychoanalytic concepts of unconscious motivation, leads one to the predisposition to particular social, philosophical, and religious beliefs. Current nonlinear systems thinking and nonlinear approaches in the arts and humanities implicates the interdependence of all these factors. The limits of the application of systems’ approaches to understanding social processes was debated by Luhmann (1984/1995) and Habermas (Habermas, 1985/1987c), which is well reviewed by Bausch (2001).


The Synopsis


Bernard’s own preface states,


in the first book, called Megacosmus, Natura [a goddess] complains in tears to Noys, God’s providence, about the confusion of hyle[7] or prime matter and implores that the worldly order be brought to a more attractive conclusion. (Quoted in Stock, 14-15).


This is an astounding statement, because it implies that the creation of the world is not necessarily a single historical project, but can be a recreation, and in fact, that a succession of recreations may be possible. Stock also refers to this as “matter longing for form.” (22). Already we are encountering self-organization in emergence.


The synopsis continues with quotes and paraphrases of Stock with occasional interlinear glosses of my own.


i.1[8]: “consists of Nature’s complaint: it describes in vivid detail the turmoil of chaos before the harmonious stability of the four elements is established. (hexameter) (15).


i2: Noys “agrees in principal to fulfill the request, theorizes about her relation to God, then turns to the practical business of creation, separating the four elements and molding them into a stable structure for the world's body. After a digression in which Noys, never modest, discourses on her own powers, the world-soul, endelichia, descends in emanation from the heavens. The union of body and soul takes place under Noyes’s guidance.” (prose) (15).


i.3: “Once the body and soul of the universe are ‘married,’ its contents unfold before the reader in elegeics[9]. Noys, who is presumably presiding over this event as well, is nonetheless mentioned in the catalog of all things in the world. The reader is thus given the impression¾maintained throughout the Cosmographia¾of astrological determinism operating in co-existence with a certain amount of free will. Bernard sets forth the nine orders of  angels, the zodiac, the divisions of the earth, and its contents, including mountains, rivers, trees, fruit, spices, paradises, domestic vegatables, flowers, fish, and birds. (15).


The dual position of Noys as both creator in heaven and created object in the catalog of things in the world are likewise astounding: they represent self-organizational interaction between the world and the heavens and thus imply free will. Many if not most, creation myths involve this paradox of the self-created creator.


i.4: “When this little encyclopedia is finished, he presents an explanation of how the universe runs. The cosmic globe possesses an eternal source of life giving power which flows down from the heavens in the form of heat and light. The cosmos itself is eternal, a notion which he defends by uniting, not altogether successfully, material from a number of different sources. In the hierarchy of genii or numina that transmit ideas, principles, and life forces from above, primacy of place is given to Noys. Then follows mundus, the living creature of the world itself, endelichia, the world-soul, Natura, and imarmene, fate. These are all interralated in a syncretistic fashion. (15-16).


Book one may thus be divided into three sections: i.1 and i.2, on creation itself; i.3, on the contents of the universe; and i.4, on the quasi-scientific processes by which the cosmos functions. (16).


In Microcosmus, book two, Noys promises to create man as the summation of her work. In ii.3, she first bids Natura seek out two other goddesses whose help will be indispensable: Urania and Physis. Natura searches for Urania in the heavens and finds her, not too surprisingly indulging in astrology. Urania agrees to cooperate and explains to Natura some of the difficulties which the individual soul will encounter, as well as the diverse properties it will acquire, in descending to inhabit temporarily the human frame. In ii.5-9, Urania leads Natura on a long journey through the stars. After visiting a mysterious, neoplatonic palace called Tugaton, they descend to earth through the planetary spheres. At ii.9, just below the lunar sphere, they pause at a place called Granusion, where they encounter Physis with her two daughters, Theory and Practice. While Physis conducts what appear to be experiments into the natures and causes of phenomena, Noys arrives on the scene. After delivering an oration on the dignity of man (ii.10), she proceeds to supervise the work of the other three goddesses in creating man as a microcosm (ii.11-12). Physis, now raised to an important role in the drama, first complains about the inherent difficulty of making man from the leftover elements; then, aided by Urania and Natura, she puts man together rather like a mechanical fabrication. In ii.13-14, man, the fabrica Nature primipotentis, is described in detail, thus providing a literary balance to the poetic unfolding of the megacosmus in 1.3. (16-17)


In general, then, book two may be divided into two major acts, dealing respectively with the astral journey and the creation of man. It is also possible to divide the last act into two scenes, one treating man’s actual formation from the elements, the other the manner in which he functions.  (17).


Commentary in Gloss


Bernard’s main source was Plato’s Timaeus (Chalcidius’ late third century translation) both for many specific details and for the method of imbedding in myth. There are, according to Stock, “two senses of myth” [in both Bernard and Plato]. (17)


[In the first place,] no account of the material world can ever amount to an exact and self-consistent statement of unchangeable truth. In the second place, the cosmology is cast in the form of a cosmogony, a ‘story’ of events spread out in time. Plato chooses to describe the universe, not by taking it to pieces in an analysis, but by constructing it and making it grow under our eyes. (Cornford, 1937, 28; quoted by Stock, 17-18).


The first, the basic rift between the Pre-Socratics and Plato as mentioned previously for Heraclitus versus Parmenides, occurs throughout history and even now continues to be a basic philosophic issue.  This rift is a major feature within the philosophy of science, especially as exposed in the logical positivist and operationist foundation of the unified encyclopedic project (Neurath, 1937). Operationists were clear in stating the limits of science, and the requirements for arriving at scientific statements. Many of their contemporary critics, I feel, miss the point of the limits they were trying to establish, and blaming them for the excesses of a modern science as it became conscripted to certain social goals as distinct from the quest for understanding the nature of the universe and its inhabitants. Within the movement, there were strict operationists, like P. Bridgman (1936) and B F. Skinner (1938) who held that no theorizing was possible that possessed scientific credibility. They held the only reality were the functional relationships observed between observable variables; and even these were subject to probabilistic considerations, and had to meet certain tests of linguistic and observational conditions. There were others who permitted theoretical statements about unobserved variables as long as these were tied to observable variables. These came in two flavors, those suggesting that these variables were not ‘real’ and were called ‘intervening variables’, and those which were reified and were called ‘hypothetical constructs’ (MacCorquodale & Meehl, 1948; Tolman, 1936).


On this crucial issue, Stock further quotes Cornford:


Bernard did not entirely assume, as did Plato, that “the world is only a likeness of the real”, but he did clearly support the view that “any account of it can be no more than a ‘likely’ story.” (Stock, 17; his quotes of Cornford, 28).


Bernard was obviously aware of the past, present, and the future of his philosophy of science. I believe he was correct, that there is more to reality than we can know, or more than likely, ever know. But a belief in a hidden reality does not imply an adherence to Plato’s ontos or eidos, that the basic reality is a fixed, immutable, ideal, another aspect very likely beyond our ever knowing.



There are other similarities to Plato’s Timaeus: a beneficent creator, vicegerents who were also gods, genesis that is a result of Intelligence (Noys) and Necessity (Natura, Urania, Physis, etc.), and themes of man as microcosm; an interrelation of motion, time, and eternity; and the notion that the soul gets educated before entering the body, parallels of configuration of world and man. (18).



There are also differences from Timaeus: Bernard depended on Chalcidius, whose translation was incomplete. Chalcidius was also analytic (deconstructive) rather than constructive, a different form of literary demythologization. Nonetheless, Bernard was constructive, evolutionary, as previously noted. But Bernard was unable to separate the views of Plato from those of his interpreters. (19)


Bernard’s other sources were all encyclopedic, and also structural, explaining things in scientific terms. Mythologizing and demythologizing were two resonating parts of a whole, but for Bernard, encylopedica may have been more important than mythos: “Bernard incorporated both the idea of a mythical cosmology and that of a commentary on it.” (20).


Certain assumptions are made about the division of the sciences or the theory of knowledge. The real world is seen to possess a rational design, the result of cosmogony, which the encyclopedia imitates through the ordering of its facts. The world is not primarily apprehended in its naturalistic diversity although this is often a strong undercurrent but as a logical pattern, a harmonious arrangement of discrete elements.  (20).


His other mythic sources from antiquity to the neoplatonists included Hesiod, Genesis, Ovid, Pliny, Apuleius, Isidore of Bede, Macrobius on Cicero, Matianus Capella (20)


“. . . on the seven liberal arts (in which the encyclopeia is presented in allegory as in the Cosmographia); and, perhaps as well, works like the Premmon Phuysicon of  Nemesius of Emesia, in the eleventh century translation of Alphanus of Salerno, and even the Periphyseon ofJohn Scouttus Eriugena. In its general pattern, however, the Cosmographia reembles most closely the structural encyclopedias . . . (20)


such as those by Honorius, Adelard of Bath, and William of Conches, whose Philosophia Mundi is highly similar in many ways to Cosmographia. The Cosmographia is a composite literary form, mythic, encyclopedic in its presentation of the results of a creation story, and scientific, reflecting “the growing natural-philosophic interests of the period in many ways.” (20-23).


In justifying this scientific aspect, Stock offers five ways that Bernard is scientific. First is that most of the personae represent natural forces (e.g., Physis); second, “Natura, in addition to symbolizing the natural forces that guide fatalistic causality, clearly represents ratio scientiam quaerens, reason seeking out knowledge”; third, is the classical idea of physical as opposed to moral allegory (sun, moon, and stars are divine; astrological figures guide the universe), “thus the abstractions at the center of the work are not moral but philosophical truths; fourth, an interest “in the real, empirically definable world for its own sake”, the “same balance between an ideal order and a sensuous experience that one finds so vividly expressed in Romanesque and Gothic sculpture”; (23) and fifth,


The structuring of the myth, its reworking of traditional materials, held certain important implications for natural philosophy. For Bernard, the intellectual advances of his own day were a source of great optimism. In his mind the dusk of the late antique gods signified the rise of rational science.” (23-24).


I meant to skip these last five points because the inclusion of science seemed obvious enough, but there are some issues within them that invite commentary.


Up to this point we have seen the Cosmographia as a creation, or self-recreation, story, updated with the scientific sensibility of the 12th century. The scientific sensibility seemed more a recounting of new views of the universe and humanity (encyclopedic fact and theories) than a discourse on discovery and curiosity and methods employed to satisfy these needs (empirical science). But here we see Natura representing “reason seeking out knowledge”, and that Bernard is interested in the real world “for its own sake”.


It is curious to note why there are even three major “enlightenments”, of myth giving way to reason and science: the 6-4th century BCE Greek enlightenment, the 12-13th centuries’ one represented by Bernard, William of Conches, William of Auvergne, Roger Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, et al., which was albeit not as dramatic that of 17-18th centuries (Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Leibniz, Newton, Francis Bacon, et al.) This consideration prompts two further inquires: the first, did religious hegemonic institutions (e.g., Catholic) focus on the mythic to solidify their institutionalization making resistance to science even greater than that which confronted the earlier Greek enlightenment? We won’t argue or weigh evidence on this point, but mainly raise this as a puzzling issue.


The second inquiry regards what motivates science and what are the similarities between what motivates science and myth. The program of the Enlightenment was establishing reason and science as the heart of the search for truth and that the deployment of reason and science would provide a stable base of knowledge that would prove emancipative (from the forces of nature, myth, and social institutions). Francis Bacon, its chief spokesperson, mentioned among its concerns, fear of the unknown as a motivation for acquiring knowledge, which is apparently different from my own inheritance from the Enlightenment, the motivation of curiosity and joy in learning new knowledge, new closer approximations to “the truth” about  cosmological, biological, psychological, and social processes. Bacon also mentioned some of the cultural advantages of this emancipation. In discussing that “knowledge is power” he mentioned three areas of culture, accomplished before the enlightenment, more by chance, that would be better accomplished by the application of knowledge. He indicates that the mythicism of the past have made for

“things which have forbidden the happy match between the mind of man and the nature of things . . . the posterity and issue of so honorable a match may be, but it is not hard to consider. Printing, a gross invention; artillery, a thing that lay not far out of the way; the needle[10], a thing partly known before: what a change have these things made in the world: the one in state of learning, the other in the state of war, the third in the state of treasure, commodities, and navigation! And these I say, were but stumbled upon and lighted upon by chance.[11]  (Bacon, 1825a, 254ff.)

What does Bacon say of the curiosity and joy, learning about nature for its own sake?


Knowledge that tendeth but to satisfaction, is but as a courtesan, which is for pleasure, and not for fruit or generation. . . what is the true end, scope, or office of knowledge, what I have set down to consist not in any plausible, delectable, reverend or admired discourse, or an satisfactory arguments, but in effecting and working, and in discovery of particulars not revealed before, for the better endowment and help of man’s life. (Bacon, 1825b, 281).

This came as quite a shock to me, who looked at science as a means of penetrating and savoring the mysteries of the universe. Horkheimer and Adorno seize upon this superficiality of Bacon to support their deconstruction of the Enlightenment’s program of substituting reason for myth in the search for truth. They throw out my baby with Bacon’s bathwater. Their radical thesis rests on three features: (1) reason is similar to myth in being motivated by the desperation to control an unknown and feared universe (trivial nitpicking, and untrue I would contend); (2) knowledge is control (trivial, both of nature and the affairs of society I would contend); and (3) most importantly, the program of the triumph of reason contained the seeds of its own self-destruction in establishing reason as a logocentric position (non-trivial, and partly false and partly true, I would contend).

To explain the last of these, first consider the conditions under which Dialectic of Enlightenment and the Frankfurt school of Critical Theory was spawned, that of the time of World War II. Poster summarizes the excesses of reason that motivated Horkheimer and Adorno. In his discussion of the differences between Habermas (1985/1987d) and the French Poststructuralists, Poster states:


The Frankfurt School itself, it could be argued, preceded poststructuralists in the critique of the Enlightenment. In the dark days of the 1940s the forces of science and reason appeared to promote, not to dissipate, domination. There are no more fitting testimonies to the Nietzschean critique of reason than the technical rationality in the organization of Auschwitz and the scientific creativity of the Manhattan Project. (Poster, 1989, 21-22).


So how do you get from “pure reason” to Auschwitz? Philosophically it lies in the establishing of reason itself as a logocentric. Even if science were not tied to the weaknesses of fear and control this could be considered a possibility, although I do not consider it a result of a properly framed science. Horkheimer and Adorno indict the deployment of reason from Xenophanes to the positivists:


The disenchantment of the world is the extirpation of animism. Xenophanes derides the multitude of deities because they are but replicas of the men who produced them, together with all that is contingent and evil in mankind; and the most recent school of logic denounces—for the impressions they bear—the words of language, holding them to be false coins better replaced by neutral counters. The world becomes chaos, and synthesis salvation. . . On the road to modern science, men renounce any claim to meaning. They substitute formula for concept, rule and probability for cause and motive. . . the latest secularization of the creative principle. (Horkheimer & Adorno, 194772, 5).

Many contemporary critics of science and positivism reflect this same view, but I believe it is a restricted view as I said before. I think there are different processes establishing different kinds of meaning, that there is not a sinlge path for seeking truth. They complement each other, each giving a different perspective. In practice, it may be that much of science ends up being practiced in a control/technological fashion rather than in a satisfy-the-curiosity fashion, in large measure from the demands of the society that pays the tab, more than from internal scientific myopia, although the prostitution may contribute to a myopia. But to me, science is simply the passionate search for understanding nature, and one that involves mutual relationship with the universe as well as understanding; it involves awe, and mystery; a marveling of the universe, not a unilateral domination of it. The truth of this matter, of motivation in science, is that it is much more complex than I, Horgan, or the Critical Theorists, Post-Analytic Theorists, and Poststructualists have yet appreciated. It is quite probable that fear and curiosity are not entirely independent motives. Their interaction should be a subject for study by systems theoretical psychologists and philosophers alike.

I have two friends, Frank Mosca (1994, 1995) and Robin Robinson (1995, 1996) who enjoy systems theory, mathematics, science, psychology, and philosophy, not for a cool dissection of the universe and the ability to control nature and society, but because these pursuits give joy and meaning to the mysteries of the universe. I share this enthusiasm. Robin has been most articulate in expressing the awe of the mystery of existence (1996), and is enthralled by how deep mathematics and logic penetrate into this mystery without destroying it (1995). Frank (1995) expresses the caution that the systems theoretical thinking which amplified for many of us the mysteries of the interconnectedness of the universe and our participation in it, may contain the potentiality of its self-destruction in that sense, of being too analytic, and, if you will, successful. Like Horkheimer and Adorno claiming that the Enlightenment contained the seeds of its own self-destruction, any theoretical position contains the potential of becoming too totalizing, too logocentric. Horgan (1996) poses the issue this way:


Horgan conducted interviews for Scientific American. Certain questions he kept posing to the leading scientists of our time. Penrose had just replied to a question about superstring theory, to the effect that


It’s [superstring theory] just not the way I’d expect the answer to be.


Horgan ponders the answer thusly:


I began to realize, as Penrose spoke, that to him ‘the answer’ was more than a mere theory of physics, a way of organizing data and predicting events. He was talking about The Answer: the secret of life, the solution to the riddle of the universe.

Penrose is an admitted Platonist. Scientists do not invent the truth; they discover it. Genuine truths exude a beauty, a rightness, a self-evident quality that gives them the power of revelation.  (Horgan, 1996, 2; Horgan’s italics).


Penrose continued:


I guess this is rather suggesting that there is an answer, although that is perhaps too pessimistic.


Horgan was puzzled:


What is so pessimistic, I asked, about a truth seeker thinking that the truth is attainable?


Penrose replied:


Solving mysteries is a wonderful thing to do. And if they were all solved, somehow, that would be rather boring.




Long after I left Syracuse, I mulled over Penrose’s remarks. Was it possible that science could come to an end? Could scientists, in effect, learn everything there was to know? Could they banish mystery forever?  (quotes ibid, 2-3; my italics).


Habermas (1987b,c,d) counters Horkheimer and Adorno’s baby-with-the-bathwater disposal of reason, by deconstructing the concept of reason in order to salvage its positive value in social discourse, similar to Weber, Heideggar, and Derrida. He distinguishes between “instrumental rationality”, bureaucratic institutions that exert social control by “steering mechanisms” which produce “pathologies”, and “communicative rationality”,


when the paradigm of self-consciousness, of the relation-to-self of a subject knowing and acting in isolation, is understanding, is replaced by a different one — by the paradigm of mutual understanding, that is, of the intersubjective relationship between individuals who are socialized through communication and reciprocally recognize one another. Only then does the critique of the domineering thought of subject-centered reason emerge in a determinate form — namely, as a critique of Western “logocentricism,” which is diagnosed not as an excess but as a deficit of rationality. (Habermas, 1987b, 310).


I would add a third category to accommodate the self-conscious person trying to ascertain their place in the universe prior to, the metaphysical-cosmological issue, or independent of, considerations of relationships in society. That is, I don’t believe that “the paradigm of self-consciousness” precludes a mystical relationship to the universe that necessarily leads to conflict with the idea of a mutual relationship to other beings. But I do see how it can lead to hierarchical institutions of domination.

Horkheimer and Adorno further destruct the “relation-to-self” as a somewhat  psychoanalytic/Hegelian/Weberian view of evolution of the ego, as an objectification of the self, through their analysis of Homer’s Odyssey. Habermas summarizes their argument as follows:


The episodes tell of danger, cunning, and escape, and of the self-imposed renunciation by which the ego, learning to master danger, gains its own identity and takes leave of the bliss of archaic union with internal and external nature. . . This figure of human beings shaping their identity by learning to dominate external nature at the cost of repressing their internal nature supplies the model for a description under which the process of enlightenment reveals it Janus-face: the price of renunciation, of self-concealment, of interrupted communication between the ego and its own nature (now anonymous as the id) is construed as a consequence of the introversion of sacrifice. (Habermas, 1987a, 109).

Habermas criticizes this position as a straw edifice designed to show that

Reason itself destroys the humanity it first made possible . . . that from the very start of the process of enlightenment is the result of a drive to self-preservation that mutilates reason, because it lays claim to it only in the form of a purposive-rational mastery of nature and instinct — precisely as instrumental reason. (Habermas, 1987a, 110-111).

I like Habermas confronting the rejection of reason, but I agree with his critics that the reintroduction of reason carries with it the danger of reintroducing “logocentrism” and ideologies that can lead to domination.


The history of psychology has frequently distinguished cognitive from motivational factors: e.g., id/ego/superego (Freud, 1933), habit strength vs. drive (Hull, 1943) and so on. It is clear, just from a consideration of the complex organization of the brain (Davidson et al., 1999), that these domains share common attractors that are a result of the tensions of their interaction. That is, the attractor is the thing; the domains themselves are pretty much fictions (or oversimplifications).


In the initial scene, Natura complains to Noys about the unpleasant state of chaos in the world and Noys, rebuking her gently, promises to do what she can to make the universe a more harmonious order. [While Natura had previously existed in medieval poetry] Bernard’s introduction of Natura into medieval Latin literature as an allegorical goddess presiding over the creation of the world and of man was something of an innovation. . . Natura in the Cosmographia is not only a revived classical idea, she personifies notions and even sentiments current the twelfth century. (Stock, 61-62).


This paragraph emphasizes several points. One is to reiterate that the universe is undergoing salutatory evolution. We might remember that Anaximander’s, Anaximenes’, and Hindu cosmologies also postulated cycles of transformations, or destruction and creation of elements (Sahakian). Second, the recreation story is going to progressively reconstruct the universe and thereby develop current scientific notions about it. Thirdly, it seems to be syntonic with Horkheimer and Adorno’s claim that seeking knowledge is motivated by fear, but fourthly, Noys downplays that fear, and seems to agree that a more harmonious universe might not be a bad idea—there is always room for improvement. There is ambiguity there. Fifthly, and I think in partial resolution of point four, Natura, to me, seems to represent Bernard himself. And I take him to be optimistic (the recreation will be successful, assert that the world is harmonious and good) and curiosity driven rather than fear driven. Bernard, being in this epic, represents growth and maturity, a struggle to develop self and understanding, rather like Kristeva’s evolution of the pre-Oedipal semiotic chora onto which develops the symbolic order (her Lacanian brand of neoanalytic/political development), the patriarchal/Oedipal onto the pre-Oedipal maternal (in which she alludes to the Timaeus from which she borrows the term chora which for Plato and Kristeva represents a non-metric protective maternal space for a child[12]).


So these glosses to Stock’s presentation of some element s of Cosmographia have raised questions about the similarities of cosmological, biological, psychological, and social transformation, the contexts in which they occur, and the ways we inquire about them, and the motivations for these inquiries. None of these inquiries are answered here; just posed. Rorty’s domains of solidarity and objectivity can be seen as intertwined. The epic can be viewed as an example of Gadamer-Hölderin’s “the conversation that we ourselves are”[13].



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[1] A sense of home, place, being.

[2] Note that ‘topoi and tranformation’ are similar to ‘being and becoming’.

[3] Alternative title: De Mundi Universitate libri duo sive Megacosmos et Microcosmos

[4] The major source for this presentation of Cosmographia is Brian Stock’s Myth & Science in the Twelfth Century, A Study of Bernard Silvester, Princeton: Princeton. His scholarship is impressive. Any quotes and pages specified are to this work unless otherwise specified; what is not quoted may be presumed to be in large part a précis of Stock except where I note that I speak in my own voice. While I felt more at home in the exploration of Galileo, the 12th century presented a mind-set quite unfamiliar to me.

[5] The medieval course of study [the seven liberal arts] was divided into the elementary trivium and the more advanced quadrivium. The trivium comprised grammar, which included the study of literature; dialectic or logic; and rhetoric, which also covered the study of law. Completion of the trivium entitled the student to a bachelor's degree. The quadrivium comprised arithmetic; geometry, which included geography and natural history; astronomy, to which astrology was often added; and music, chiefly that of the church. Once the quadrivium had been completed, the student was awarded a master of arts. (Microsoft Encarta 2000.)

[6] I would say ‘dynamical’.

[7] Recall hylozoism, introduced by Thales, the first of the Ionian physicists (c. 624-546 bce).

[8] This notation refers to parts of Cosmographia.

[9] Distichs: couplets in hexameter.

[10] The compass.

[11] It is ironic that as I write this on September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were made on two of these institutions: that of the second, the military (the US Pentagon), and of the third, on commerce (the World Trade Center in New York).

[12] Kristeva (1986) in T. Moi (ed.), p. 93. And also see M. Surap (1993), p. 124.

[13] See introductory quotes.