On the Cenoscopic and Ideoscopic – and why they matter — Part 2 *DRAFT*

what-i-like-is-the-way-they-twinkle-charles-e-martinCharles E. Martin, New Yorker, Sept. 3, 1966

Often enough, the cenoscopic and the ideoscopic mix, if only because we can never entirely extract ourselves from our experiential  homeland in the former. That is where we live, and even when we peer deeply into telescopic space, or down into the mini-world of the microscopic, or when we climb high to a hypothetical vantage from which to view Darwinian eons and the magic metamorphoses of evolution, or venture into whatever sophisticated methodology the human sciences may devise, we still plant our buttocks on the same cenoscopic chairs, stare at our recorded results with our eyes of flesh, and scurry off afterwards for a cup of coffee, or a cocktail, once our ideoscopic labors are concluded. No one resides among the galaxies, or buys an apartment next to a quark, or places bets on whether this or that primitive quadruped will eventually become a feline or a canine, or spends 24 hours on a psychoanalyst’s couch (although those who linger too long in an ideoscopic mode may find they need to).

If our cognitive conquests in specialized science end up subduing and even disqualifying the sustaining environment of the cenoscopic, there are consequences. What we lose in context, perspective and focus – and this is especially so when the ideoscopic claims to be the truer view of things – can make the new facts and truths, however valid in detail, ultimately disorienting and confusing, even for all intents and purposes unreal. Our properly human problems do not easily map upon ideoscopic dimensions; for even the human, social sciences can be of help only to the extent that their results translate back into the cenoscopic idiom. To protest that modern science does indeed reveal new truths does not really address the question. It is not just truth that we want, but truth in perspective. After all, just as our moral problems are not really due to evils as such, but rather to misplaced and disordered goods, so also are our knowledge-related problems not ultimately due to falsehood or mendacity as such, but rather to misplaced and disordered truths. Pure evil and pure falsehood are so feeble in entity, they don’t even exist as subsistent realities. What purchase they have on existence is always parasitic on the good and the true, upon which they piggy-back for their derivative lifespans. What we need in order to overcome human problems is human perspective, which ideoscopic science, by definition, cannot easily summon into its field of vision. When your tummy hurts, your tummy hurts, and not your cells, your molecules or your atoms. And when you laugh at a joke, your mind and your torso both quake with delight, and no calculations of cellular chemistry can explain “what’s so funny”.


Although modern science and technology have been sources of considerable enlightenment and progress in battling the ills that afflict us, they have also been begetters of horrific pollution, creators of biological, chemical and nuclear weaponry, and upchuckers of masses of plastic toxins that get dumped by the tons into our oceans – and end up, sooner or later, in our organisms. Of course, the technocratic apologist will soon speak up in defense of his handiwork. You can’t have a tree standing in the sun without it casting a shadow, he might retort. And after all, many of the problems caused by advanced science may well be solved by yet more advanced science. True enough, but the real problem with science run amok is not just too little, or too much, ideoscopic data, but rather lack of the kind of context, perspective and focus that this sort of knowledge cannot gauge, or even surmise, to begin with.

It was not for this that it was developed, nor does its proven value and strength lie in any inherent, synoptic ‘wisdom’.  Its obsessive specialization not only does not brook criticism of the blinkers that line its chosen channel of vision, it puts them in place with cold determination and approval. It wants the isolated target; it’s cerebral left hemisphere all the way! What matters is that a method ‘works’, a fugitive phenomenon gets put under the spotlight, and the limited and squinted field of vision is indispensable for keeping attention typically focused on two things and two things only: quantity to be measured, and power to be captured and employed. When the more rhapsodical among us insist on searching the world for meaningvalue and purpose, we will be sent crestfallen from the fortresses of ideoscopic victories, and have to look elsewhere to satisfy our old-fashioned preferences. Fortunately, we won’t have to look far.

The Cenoscopic World

The use of this rather heavy-handed term to refer to what in saner times would have simply been called “the world” was made necessary by the success of the ideoscopic perspective in imposing itself on our imaginations. What we cannot see has, counter-intuitively, become more real to us than what we can. We fancy we know what atoms are (tiny solar-systems revolving merrily in the depths of matter), what black holes are (big black bottomless pits out there in the void), how one-celled protozoa can turn into complex mammals and reptiles (we’ve seen it in Disney animations, haven’t we?), and how the anfractuous theories of a Marx, a Freud or a Durkheim can claim to lay to rest the conundrums of our behavior – all these modern insights we believe we have ‘sighted’ (although neither our retinas nor our imaginations were invited to the show); and all the while the things we truly see with the two orbs in our head – the textured surface face of the real as it unfolds before us as we walk through a park, for example – are re-categorized as illusions at worst – at best, mere ‘appearances’.

The sun only seems to rise and set, and only a fool thinks that it really does, right? The stars seem stately and stable, but they really aren’t, right? And the “tiger, tiger, burning bright” that we admire at the zoo just happened, by chance, to turn out that way, right? Think about it. Is there really no way of acknowledging the legitimacy, for instance, of the heliocentric model without at the same time downgrading our cenoscopic eyeballs? Need we tell our eyes they are not seeing what they are seeing when they behold the solar orb ascending gloriously over yon horizon? It just doesn’t empirically work if we try to watch the horizon sink the way we watch the sun go up, as it climbs majestically to its noonday paramountcy. After all – I feel like a philosophical freedom-fighter – what right have the new ideoscopic perspectives to such imperialistic epistemology?

What is more, this dictatorial shifting of our sensibility is not even consistent with their own very modern conclusions about motion and relativity. If there is one consensual conviction that has come out of three centuries of modern physics, it is that there is no fixed point of reference anywhere in the cosmos (at least insofar as it is now known). There are only relative points of reference, depending on the system in question; we get our bearings in each perception from the priorities of perspective that come from elsewhere in our experience. For an astronomer abstractly contemplating the earth from outer space, pondering its physical relation to the planets and the sun, the heliocentric model makes sense and reveals physical causalities we cannot accurately accommodate within the geocentric model (e.g., the erratic movements of the planets). From that perspective, there is truth in heliocentrism, and no cenoscopic thinker worth his salt will learn this without saying thank you. But why should that perspective be paramount for the non-astronomer, the simple earth-dweller, who with craned neck looks heavenwards and follows the path of the sun, the soles of his feet planted securely upon soil and grass, and says: “Wow! That was one gorgeous sunrise!”?  Is he just a benighted and misguided yokel?


Consider the stars, seriously. The cenoscopic view of the night sky is of a beautiful canopy of twinkling wonders, all in an ensemble display that, like no other – as Plato said long ago – arouse the experience of wonder from our breasts. We instinctively assemble them in symbolically meaningful constellations, give them names, use them to navigate the seas, measure the seasons and establish the weeks and months of our calendars. They are reliable, always there, even when waiting for us behind the clouds. The sphere of their steadfastness is the grand celestial orb within which we live, the largest embracing limit of the aesthetic miracle that is our home, our true celestial ceiling. The passages of sun, moon and planets against their backdrop only highlight the permanence of their multiple sparkles.

Now what does ideoscopic astronomy add to this? Actually quite a bit. We know, for instance, that almost all of what we see up there is neither solid, nor liquid, nor gas, but a fourth state called plasma. That’s interesting. We also know that virtually all the stars we see belong to our own, local galaxy: the Milky Way. We know too that there are further billions upon billions not just of stars, but of other galaxies out there, surpassingly beyond the reach of the naked eye. These and a few other insights can serve and even enhance the wonder we feel as we look at the starry sky. All this is fruitful, and shows how the two perspectives can co-exist and enrich each other, provided we not commit epistemological treason against the homeland of the cenoscopic. There is a point, you see, where ideoscopic science can leave off supplementing and begin displacing.


First, we are told the stability we witness is an illusion; the galaxies with their stars are actually zipping away from each other at unimaginable velocities. We don’t get to perceive this; comparisons of present measurements with those of centuries ago may pick up small shifts, but this hardly concerns our present-day star-gazing. The real obstacle are the distances. Ah, those distances. The closest star (still in our own cozy Via Lactea) is over four light-years away (and don’t pretend, wistfully, that you can imagine that; you can’t). Our nearest galaxy ‘neighbor’ is two and a half million light-years away.  Adding immeasurably to the complications attendant on such incomprehensible remoteness is a truly surreal ideoscopic revelation. Buckle up!

Each of those stellar points in the sky lies at a different (often wildly different) distance from us. That means the ‘age’ of each star’s light is also different. Astronomers like to wow us first with the incogitable stretches of light-years, inviting us to imagine riding a beam of photons and getting to our destination in a few hundred thousand years. But then they inform us that the starlight we now see does not give us empirical information on the actual being of those stars as we look at them; it only tells that so and so many years, centuries, millennia or millions of years ago (depending on which celestial orb we point our pupils at), a certain star sent forth that illumination, and that today we cannot even be sure that star still exists.

What a bizarre astronomical history lesson ideoscopy invites us to study as we survey the vault of the heavens! Imagine if we could send a camera drone over the earth for a few weeks and, as you afterwards view the footage, you see, in those same few weeks, the first hominid sporting a tool, Caesar crossing the Rubicon, the beginning of the Second Crusade, Galileo walking over to the Holy Office in Rome, and John F. Kennedy being inaugurated on the steps of the U.S. capitol. This is not history, but a chronological phantasmagoria. It is bizarre because, far and away, the most significant and the most realistic view of the stars is the one on unmistakable display in our cenoscopic experience, and it is how they look to us from our home on earth. Again, all motion is relative, as is all rest, and the fixed stars of our sky look the way they do because that is, for us, truly the way they are.

I am not disputing at all that heliocentric science can give us a new perspective on why the sun ‘appears’ to rise and set, enlightening us indeed on how the earth rotates about its axis as it revolves around the sun. This is a fascinating and useful new angle to bear in mind while we gaze at the sunrise. However, it is something quite different to insist that that, and that alone, is the truth of the matter, and that what we are seeing is a beguiling semblance, a fata morgana, even an optical illusion. No it is not. If our terrestrial existence postulates the relative stability of the earth we stand upon (whose speedy cosmic career through our galaxy is a part of no one’s everyday experience), and the relative mobility of all that passes over our heads – and that means not just clouds and birds, but also sun, moon, planets and stars – then in our system of reference, we have full epistemological rights (I would even say a duty) to declare that what we see is real. Assuming, quite legitimately, the relative stability of our domestic orb – which far more than just being one ‘planet’ among many, is in truth a unique, marvelous, scary and real  home to us – all those celestial objects up there really do move. 

We who live in the cenoscopic world – a world which includes, by the way, the ideoscopic scientists – do walk around on two legs, watch the sun rise each morning (and, naive romantics that we are, find it beautiful, even moving), look “up” and are uplifted by the view of a sky populated with light and meaning (and not peering “down our noses” into empty cosmic space), play snooker with David Hume’s descendants (and find that the balls on the table – however the Scot may have impugned their consistency – really do “have balls”, so to speak), hum a tune, love a lover, entertain a dream, plan a trip to that mysterious, formidable and enticing mass of entity we call ‘the ocean’, and….well, you get my drift.

We who live as human beings know that the ideoscopic take on reality is a supplement, an addition, a new and fascinating perspective indeed, but not at all one which casts our day-to-day experience into irrelevance; nor does it reduce it to a a chance by-product of fantastically imagined dimensions of astrophysics claiming to be ‘more real’.  Neither are we intimidated by nuclear reactions, evolutionary necessities or newly unveiled explain-it-all narratives from the most recent version of the hermeneutics of suspicion. Our better angels know better (once they have been summoned out of hiding), and they do so because their senses have been awakened by the humanities and the arts, their thought trained in realism by proven philosophy (and true philosophy is cenoscopic science!), and their hearts steadied in this world of pain and sorrow, but also of transcendent joy, by the world’s religions.

These three sources of experience are not just diversions or peripheral ornaments, but genuine sources of true and momentous knowledge, without which we soon cease to be human. And a strange feature of this cenoscopic cognition is that it is actually more certain and secure – not only to us, but even in itself – than the results of all ideoscopic science together. This latter – as its representatives today will reluctantly admit – is, for all its insight and usefulness, at best a haven of high statistical probabilities, forever vulnerable to new discoveries, updates, revolutions and paradigm shifts. The cenoscopic world is the home of the perennial, and although there is plenty to learn there and many discoveries to be made, they will all fit into the selfsame picture of reality first gazed upon by the first human beings at the inception of our incredible saga.


coming:  Part 3

On the Cenoscopic and Ideoscopic – and why they matter — Part 1 *DRAFT*


When learning something ostensibly ‘new’, the best ideas and the best distinctions are usually those that awaken something in your mind and experience that was already there, but somehow hidden by more obtrusive concerns, or outshined by what seemed to be greater lights. For the most part, self-glorifying innovations turn out to be hardly more than just technological tricks for managing and manipulating things in new ways by adding velocity, power and ease to operations we already engaged in (writing faster, getting somewhere more quickly, crunching more data than before, etc.). In contrast, more enriching advances in learning typically fashion new links among components of what we already know, and perform that fruitful fusion championed by Confucius, who identified the true teacher as the one “who could bring forth the new by keeping warm the old.”  This happens when you read Plato or Aristotle, Augustine or Aquinas, or those very few moderns (such as C.S. Peirce, or C.S. Lewis) who stepped aside from the stampede of those forever in pursuit of the totally unprecedented, and thus found the perennial to still be relevant – especially because it alone can seed the rooted innovations that can organically grow.

No one expression captures more directly the focus of this obsession with the unprecedented, and one that has come to occupy center stage since the 17th century – despite multiple demonstrable links with the past, and yet links that remain unappreciated in the furor over the novelty of the new – than (let the mantra resound): “modern science.”  This new cognitive and cultural sovereign has progressively oppressed and displaced three areas of human activity formerly enthroned in high authority, and which prevailed in ancient and medieval Western, as well as in non-Western traditional societies. We can classify them as 1) the humanities and the arts; 2) philosophy; and 3) religion.  From of old these three domains existed in symphony, one encompassing the other, only, in turn, to be encompassed by yet another in a different sort of fruitful embrace – all of them inseparable in their resources and interactive in their cognitive, as well as existential claims on our attention; ever distinct, but never sundered – they were the default disciplines which positioned the human imagination, mind and heart firmly within the matrix of the real. But as the march of modernity has progressed, they have found themselves pushed to the side, or – even worse – assigned new subordinate tasks, as modern science and its subservient sidekick, modern technology, continued to barrel forth into the world and into our everyday lives.

When I was a slowly maturing adolescent in the 1960s, I used to scissor out the “Science” section in the Time magazine our family subscribed to, quite confident that all the other political, economic and cultural news was transient and doomed to the dustbin. Science, however, had a purchase on the future. I still follow scientific developments with keen interest, careful only to distinguish between proven fact and theory and the oft misguided interpretations pressed upon them by many a philosophically illiterate scientist. But when I ponder what has happened to the world of art, philosophy and religion in the face of science and technology’s unquestioned ascendancy – even over all that is not material and measurable – I get all revolutionary. Words of an old song come to mind: “No man’s a jester playing Shakespeare on your throne-room floor, while the juggler’s act is danced upon the crown that you once wore.”

Religion has been largely relegated to the world of the private (usually regarded as a private fantasy, or at best allegorical raiment for morally upright intentions otherwise lost in a technocratic world). Philosophy, in turn, is sent – like a disobedient school boy to the principal’s office – off to the history department where it might be given some legitimacy as chronicler of our past, and mostly futile, attempts to find our way to the modern Shangri-La of science. The re-christening usually occurs under the title of the “history of ideas.” Philosophies of the past each receive their appointed diorama in this cabinet of ideological curiosities.

The arts and the humanities, in contrast, are assigned a more generous role, since the toils of science and technology do wear us out, and a bit of fun and relaxation on the weekends is welcome. Any claim to cognitive or moral tutorship, however, is denied them, unless, of course, neuroscience or evolutionary theory are able to discover a solid survival use for their exercises. But learning to merely survive was never a top priority for these traditional endeavors, and doesn’t even get close to their hereditary raison d’être.

How one intelligently accounts for the new hegemony of science and technology in a way that does not necessarily denigrate, or demote, the three earlier manifestations of man’s search for meaning, has been a challenge multiply accosted, but rarely effectively engaged (even in the sad case of C.P. Snow).  Often enough, one throws oneself prostrate to the ground before the new masters, and declares philosophy to have no future. Stephen Hawkins, among others, has decreed that “philosophy is dead”, and the reason is that “it has not kept up with modern developments in science, especially physics.” (at the very beginning of his last book, The Grand Design, 2010).

More generous obituaries might still apportion a servile role to the descendants of Plato and Aristotle, allowing them to serve as science’s interpreters, even translators, since the hyper-specialized scientists often enough are incapable of speaking with those of an ‘alien’ discipline. Bertrand Russell proposed such a survival tactic. In the same vein, religions must only be accepted as the tolerated subjective dispositions of certain private individuals not yet fully in sync with the new scientific worldview (who wants to argue with their grandmother?). And, again, the arts and our love-affair with multiple (non-scientific) languages, literatures, history and the entire realm of the Muses, will be escorted into their new nursery:  a garden of diversions, to which all the belabored scientists and technicians can retire in their moments of leisure; there they may engage in restorative distractions, but only in order to return thereafter to the world of true cognition in their laboratories and university departments. There they will be coddled and encouraged to measure, theorize and relativize all those realities that the benighted folks of the past endeavored to cultivate in literature, religion and philosophy.

But fortunately people such as myself – apologists of the endangered wisdom of the past – have been given a powerful aid in putting all of this in a perspective that honors one and all of these diverse epistemic claims – both those of the past, and also the intrusively imperious ones of the present. I refer to a distinction borrowed, somewhat paradoxically, from the foremost proponent of modern utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham. The distinction is useful indeed. It was then adopted and enriched by the most brilliant of modern American pragmatists (or ‘pragmaticists’ to adopt his own personal Anabaptist term). I speak of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). This distinction was rather ignored for almost a century until taken up by a recent American philosopher who was able to eye its full context, both in view of Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas and John of St. Thomas (of classical thought), and equally of Locke, Pierce, Heidegger and a pioneer modern Hungarian semiotician, Thomas Sebeok (of modern thought). I am referring to the marginal, unrecognized sage of Loris College: John Deely (1943-2017). As was the case with Peirce, Deely will also be noticed only by those who spend a few hours within the world of their philosophical prose, unruffled by the negligence of the professional academy.

Peirce and Deely, due to wide reading in traditional Scholastic literature (and friendship with giants like William James in Peirce’s case, and an assortment of leading Thomists and the aforementioned semiotician, in Deely’s), grew into atypical philosophical geniuses. Deely, in particular, also cultivated broad reading in the medievals, including the late ‘Latin Age’ thinker, John of St. Thomas. All this brought his mind into collaborations with Mortimer Adler, a few high-octane Dominicans, and finally Heidegger, Maritain and Sebeok. The distinction referred to above was brought to us through Peirce and Deely and gives us the best approach I’ve ever found to understanding how modern science truly relates to the imaginative, rational and religious wisdom of earlier times. This link is crucial, since the danger of modern scientism’s pomposity in the face of the more traditional fountains of knowledge is mirrored by an opposite peril on the part of the very champions of the latter, who sometimes run the risk of dismissing modern science as an aberrant offspring of the modern ‘reign of quantity’ (à la René Guénon).  Steadying the pendulum between these two extremes demands a pair of measured concepts, each of which can stand in the other’s presence without humiliation or stigma.

The Cenoscopic and the Ideoscopic

These fancy-sounding words actually highlight a quite elementary distinction, and one accessible to all with just a small amount of reflection. The ‘cenoscopic’ is, as the Greek roots indicate, a ‘look’ (skopeo, I see, I look…) that is common (koinos); Charles Peirce takes it to indicate the way we look at the world with our largely unaided senses, without the interposition of sophisticated technology or the imposition of  devised mathematical hypotheses. It’s the world we walk around in, drive our cars in, raise our children in, feel pleasure in and suffer pain in, are born, grow and finally die in; it is the world in which elephants are big and ants are small, where cheetahs go real fast and turtles go real slow; a world with a splendid canopy of azure arched over it by day, and an even more splendid wash of mysterious stars by night; a world with wet, salty oceans and sweet water running in streams and rivers, of rain that comes down and balloons that go up. It’s the world where virtually all of our literature and poetry is staged (even science fiction, if only by contrast), about which traditional philosophy reflected, and in which the great religious quests of history all took their first steps, and many more that followed.

The ‘ideoscopic’, by contrast, is a ‘look’ that is idios – ‘singular, distinct,special(ized)’ – and that began to be cultivated in earnest only in modern times.[1] It has become the very glory of modern science, and has brought countless blessings and maledictions into our contemporary biosphere. It consists of up to four radical modifications of the cenoscopic approach to the world.

  1. Instead of a subject possessed of five principal senses, we have instead an assembly of highly sophisticated instruments designed to look above, beyond and below what cenoscopic perception can mediate: here are all of our telescopes, microscopes, radiometers, and a whole army of new instruments that can ‘read behind the appearances and between the lines’, endeavoring to detect all the hidden secrets of the cosmos.
  2. Secondly, instead of spontaneous, natural experience, we have in its place the contrived, choreographed experiment, isolated from the riotous world around it, and focusing on just one, or very few, selected aspects of those things which are usually enveloped in a a confusing whirlwind of relations; all but a few of these are sidelined in order to permit a specialized scientific read-out of the aimed-for ‘phenomena’, orphaned from their cenoscopic matrix.
  3. Thirdly, instead of viewing the real within the rich perspective of all of Aristotle’s classic four causes, one chooses to simplify the matter by removing the two that are most troublesome, and most suggestive of much that lies beyond the isolated fact one is hunting down. In other words, formal and final causes are shown the door; however, the two causes most germane to ‘getting a grip’ on the world in practical and technical ways (material and efficient causes) are sequestered and empowered.
  4. Finally, instead of appealing to a prior metaphysical grasp of being with an eye to what metaphysics will finally have to say about all of that which is (material or not), one turns instead to the newly expanded disciplines of mathematics (analytical geometry, trigonometry, the infinitesimal calculus for starters), and – as Galileo famously put it – endeavor to “measure what can be measured, and make measurable that which cannot”. Not only is ever more exact measurement the new criterion of what is taken to be genuinely real, but also the use of math to hypothesize in advance over what might be found in the real, so that afterwards experiments can be fashioned to confirm or disprove them.

Voilá, in summary, the new scientific method.

Kant famously characterized – and quite disapprovingly – the old-fashioned, Aristotelian way to do science as modeled on a pupil paying close attention to everything his teacher was saying; in contrast, with the new method, the scientist refuses to be a passive pupil, but models himself instead as the judge in a courtroom, asking very specific questions of the somewhat intimidated witness, and insisting that all else be excluded (“please just answer the question!”). You only get a slice of reality this way, but that’s the whole point.

These four innovations joined their energies and went off in four distinct directions, beyond, before, below or within the surface realities of the cenoscopic.  Here on earth, massive geological and tectonic events of the past lie beyond the horizons of the cenoscopic eye, producing continents and oceans, mountain chains and deserts – all realities too big to encompass with a turn of the head. And there are far bigger things than these. Above and beyond the starry sky that we admire at night is the ideoscopic world of quasars, pulsars, dark matter and energy, black holes, and – we have recently been told – galaxies now counting over a trillion. None of these things are part of our cenoscopic world. However, the cenoscopically visible night sky is very much a part of that world, and – as I will endeavor to show towards the end of this text – of even greater importance and significance than all the astrophysical data you can stuff into a supercomputer. But for the moment, I am interested in giving credit where credit is due, and the marvelous world of ideoscopic science and technology deserves a standing ovation. This is the world of geology here on earth, and astronomy, astrophysics and relativity theory out beyond it. Einstein, take a bow; and Hawkins, kudos for your heroic efforts (though out of respect for the recently deceased, I will refrain from comment on your embarrassing sallies into philosophy).

That was the world of the very, very big. Now we shall reverse the focus and look below and beneath this material stuff we live in and are made of. Here is the realm of the very, very small. The ideoscopic world of matter beneath us and in us is not beyond our purview like a mountain chain, but below it like a dust particle. Nearly the whole world of living cells that make up all organisms, and literally all the molecules in both organic and inorganic matter, and even more emphatically all the quadrillions of atoms with their sub-particles in the heart of it all, are there, but are not a perceived part of our cenoscopic habitat. Biochemistry, much of descriptive biology, chemistry, nuclear physics, for instance, are ideoscopic sciences; here too the bizarre world of quantum mechanics opens up (and thus we tip our hats to Planck and Heisenberg, among others).

Now, let us turn to the third reach of ideoscopic science. When we look to living plants and organisms themselves, in all their kinds, we view them cenoscopically as the meadow and menagerie they are – vivid and distinct, beautiful and scary: bushes, trees, vines, flowers and sprouts; tigers, bears, anteaters, dogs, cats, fish and birds and all the rest, not least of all the naked ape we ourselves are, our own awkward species – looking either like an animal gone berserk or an angel fallen from the sky. But when we read Darwin, or any of the updated versions of the evolutionary theory he hatched, we are asked to view all those life-forms as results of processes we cannot witness in a lifetime or photograph with a camera. Yet, the evidence points overwhelmingly to the reality of this protracted process of evolution that, in significant measure, made them to be what they are.

The ideoscopic dimension here is not that of the exceedingly big (as with astrophysics), or the microscopically small (as with atomic physics), but rather with a process unimaginably long-lasting, imperceptibly spread out over millions and millions of years; no imaginable years here, or even centuries or millennia – instead: incogitable eons. The modern instruments in this case are the carbon-14 and other dating techniques; the experimental objects: the fossils we carefully separate from layers of rock, and the then applied mathematical calculations as to the number of 0’s we have to put after the agreed-on digits to measure the gaping stretches of geological time during which these changes occurred (some gradually, some abruptly – but all along unfathomable chronological spans that lie totally out of cenoscopic sight). Although evolutionary, and biological science in general, are slowly coming back to the idea of final causality, the evolutionary narrative that has risen to prominence over the last century is that chance mutations of living matter and shifting environments provided sufficient material and efficient causality to bring about the species. The genesis of the organically complex makes ideoscopic sense only through natural selection, genetics and epigenetics. That there is also something transcendent at work here is a cenoscopic insight we shall return to later.

A yet further reach of ideoscopic cognition is gained by exploring how and why one singular species (guess which?) has gone on to develop in ways no other can, and has produced a panoply of not only natural ethnicities, body shapes, physiognomies, hair types and skin colors, but – far more impressively – kaleidoscopic universes of art, religion, philosophy, science, literature, music, and everything else made by human hand and ingenuity – in a word: culture.  Living nature has produced a garden of plants and a zoo of animals, with man poised at the uneasy center of it all, but from him has come the even more varied and often bizarre world of culture. Emerging from organic nature and mysteriously transcending it, human culture invites ideoscopic science to deal not with the exceedingly big, nor the microscopically small, nor with the extraordinarily long time it took to produce organic complexity, but instead with the almost unmanageable world of the culturally complex. It is no secret that biological science is immeasurably more multiple and manifold than physics and chemistry and all that deals with non-organic reality. But the life sciences are trumped in turn by what we have come to call the “human sciences”, or more frequently, in English, the “social sciences” (including what are sometimes called the “behavioral” and the “cognitive” sciences): anthropology, psychology, sociology, linguistics, historiography, archaeology, economics and human geography (to mention only the more prominent). As the former still deal with nature (although in its most complex manifestations), the latter deal instead with culture (here taken in a broad sense to include all that which exists only through the agency of free and intelligent human activity), this, in turn, uncurtains a further and virtually endless swirl of complexity, incomparably beyond even that of the biological. It emerges therefrom, and is forever linked to it, but it also dramatically – and that’s the right adverb – transcends it.

We see matter below and around us, and look up at the stars in our cenoscopic world, but we don’t see the molecules and atoms within, nor the quasars and black holes beyond. We also see the plants and animals around us – and the animal we ourselves are – but we don’t witness any of them evolving into different forms during our brief human existence; nor does recorded human history document such transformations. Likewise, we see human cultures still living today, we witness the actions and reactions our psychological makeup produces; we live in varieties of societies, speak our thousands of tongues, pick up a bit of history here, another bit there; and we also exchange goods, save and spend our money as we walk over the hills and cross the rivers of our immediate habitat.

It takes ideoscopic science, however, to research the cultures of the past and evaluate the many still with us (anthropology); to go into the depths to find why some of our psychological behavior is so weird and often troubling (depth psychology); to examine the hidden forces at work in the sometimes forbiddingly complex interactions that occur when human beings live together over time (sociology); to look beneath our day-to-day chatter and contemporary literature to find what is constant and determinant in the ever-changing world of human language (linguistics); to attempt to put some order in the way we remember – as remember we must – what went before us, despite its overwhelming convolutions and frequent confusions (historiography); to discover how our production, distribution and consumption of goods really works in its innermost causes, and why it turns so often into crass injustices and abuses (economics); and to study how the topography of the earth we walk and travel on, and in which we live our lives, enters deeply into the kind of thoughts we have and the sorts of lives we live (human geography).

*  *  *

In summary, these four areas of human knowing – the astronomically big and the microscopically small, the biologically compounded and the culturally complex –  invite ideoscopic science to don its instruments, mount its experiments, measure and hypothesize about the objects in question, and finally to fashion technologies that will hopefully more deeply integrate humankind with its environment, solve problems and cure diseases that afflict our kind. Still, the great dynamic at the heart of all knowledge, namely, the desire to unify and bring multiplicity into synthesis, afflicts these four areas as it does the divisions within each of them as well. Past attempts at reduction – to reduce biology to chemistry, for example, and then chemistry to physics – have famously failed. More recent dreams of ‘unified science’ have concerned linking the very big with the very small, and also the organically complex with the labyrinthine world of culture.

Einstein was famous for successfully bringing relativity physics (principally about the very big) into view; he was also famous for failing to bring that mammoth accomplishment into sync with the quantum mechanics (about the very small) that was also enjoying revolutionary advances.  Similarly, evolutionary science has seen great conquests in accounting for the traits of organisms as they develop over time; but it has also stared with puzzlement at the cultural explosion of activity that the human organism has generated. How to account for all that with the mere mechanisms of natural selection and genetics has not yet brought anything close to a consensual harmonization of nature and culture in biological science, though such a reduction is keenly coveted by many an evolutionary psychologist.

In the following parts of my essay, I plan to describe in greater detail the nature of cenoscopic experience and explain why – as I will dare to suggest – it is only within its ‘common sense’ context that the two extremes of physical science make physical sense, and the two extremes of life’s complexity (natural and cultural) make vital sense.

[1] I am adopting Deely’s spelling of ideoscopy, with an ‘e’ instead of an ‘i’, for ease of reference. He found the somewhat stretched allusion to ‘ideas’ to harmonize with his view of the modern “way of ideas.” Since he is by far the most prominent proponent of the distinction, I am following his preference here.


Sobre o abusado, o corrompido e o excepcional

Abusus non tollit usum. Corruptio optimi pessima. Exceptio probat regulam.

Esses três adágios latinos têm me ajudado a permanecer sensato, talvez mais do que as milhares de páginas de filosofia que eu li. Em resumo, eles me alertam a não renunciar o uso por causa do abuso; a não negligenciar a excelência por causa da sua frequente corrupção; e a não relativizar as regras, só porque as exceções são tão incômodas. O quão fácil a mente pode escorregar para dentro dessas armadilhas, observa-se com clareza para onde quer que se olhe, particularmente nessa era abusiva, corrupta e excepcional em que vivemos.

Em primeiro lugar, deixe-me traduzir – a necessidade disso é, em si, uma triste característica de uma cultura não mais familiarizada com suas línguas clássicas. ‘O abuso não exclui o uso’; ‘A corrupção do melhor é o pior’; e ‘A exceção prova a regra’.

O primeiro é muito simples. Continuamos a cortar nossa bisnagas com facas, a despeito dos muitos pescoços humanos que têm sido cortados com o mesmo instrumento afiado. O que seria da nossa cultura sem as facas? O princípio do adágio em questão é que apenas coisas intrinsecamente boas podem ser abusadas. Não se pode realmente abusar do lixo, nem destratar refugos. Mas se pode abusar de uma criança, e sabemos instintivamente a razão disso: porque uma criança é a coisa mais preciosa que o nosso triste mundo possui. Esquecemos essa verdade geral, porém, quando é a religião que está sendo abusada, e muitos logo deslizam para o argumento ilógico em favor de sua abolição. Políticos e policiais abusivos são um flagelo, mas um mundo sem política e polícia é um mundo em que não há coisa alguma para ordenar nem para defender. Então, da próxima vez que alguém mostrar indignação sobre o abuso disto ou daquilo, olhe logo para o valor da coisa abusada, e aproveite o ensejo para apreciar ainda mais a coisa cuja excelência faz possível um abuso tão chocante.


Parcialmente sobreposto ao primeiro princípio, temos o segundo. Como o abuso se aplica apenas a coisas boas, o abuso e a corrupção das melhores coisas produzem as piores, assim como acontece com as crianças – e, repito, com a religião. Não achamos revoltante quando vemos um mosquito esmagado, mas a carcaça de um cachorro já nos faz pular de horror e nojo. Quanto melhor o corpo, mais repelentes os seus restos. A Antiguidade Tardia estragou sua mente coletiva ao assistir a magnífica civilização romana decair lentamente e putrefazer-se, desafiando por séculos a historiadores e filósofos – de Agostinho a Gibbon – a entenderem porque uma das melhores sociedades humanas transformou-se numa das piores. Acredite você em anjos ou não, é significativo o fato de que a angelologia semítica diz que o mais elevado dos anjos caiu par se tornar o mais baixo; o nome inicialmente tão amável ‘Lucifer’ (o ‘portador da luz’) agora soa diabólico. Outro exemplo é o seguinte: os mais próximos e íntimos laços humanos são os de sangue, os sagrados vínculos familiares; contudo, os conflitos humanos mais sangrentos são as guerras civis e fratricidas. Da mesma forma, nenhum inimigo é tão feroz quanto um amigo que virou inimigo. Essa lista dos melhores tornando-se os piores vai longe.

web.op_.ghosh_.lefthanded.KCP_O terceiro adágio é potencialmente o mais controverso, embora, na prática, pareça o mais óbvio. Sem entrar muito em argumentos filosóficos, ou até científicos, em que ele poderia ser questionado, penso estarmos justificados em pensar, pelo menos de saída, como ele funciona em nossos assuntos do dia-a-dia. A maioria das pessoas é destra, e o mundo está cheio de sinais dessa preponderância estatística – desde a produção de automóveis, construção de estradas e carteiras de escola, até a ordem das cordas nos violões e violinos, e – num contexto menos agradável – todas as formas de alusões ‘sinistras’. Ainda assim, damos ‘colheres de chá’ aos canhotos sempre que podemos. Afinal de contas, não são culpados por essa sua tendência. Contudo, estaríamos exagerando se insistíssemos que metade de todas as carteiras escolares fossem para canhotos. Claramente, o ‘mundo canhoto’ é uma exceção ao destro, e isso ressalta – ‘prova’ – a regra. Essa prova, contudo, não nos exige extirpar as exceções, nem a bani-las a um gueto. Diz apenas que o mundo é muito mais interessante e belo, em parte, por não ser imperiosamente simétrico.

Enquanto houver temor de que a constatação de exceções constitua uma ameaça às regras, as leis da vida e do seu desenvolvimento, bem como as tendências naturais, continuarão a ser encaradas como leis draconianas, com nossas mentes buscando regras que não sofrem exceções, vendo isso como a única forma de honrar a natureza. Mas, até a ciência moderna – outrora orgulhosa de suas ‘leis da natureza’ de validade necessária e universal – está hoje em dia acostumada a admitir lidar com probabilidades estatísticas na maioria das vezes, e com tendências e aproximações que, na realidade, ganham mais destaque justamente por meio das exceções que lhes negam a universalidade.

Eu tenho que desviar para a faixa errada, a fim de evitar atropelar um pedestre, e esse momento de comportamento excepcional simplesmente ressalta, com um toque dramático, o quão importante é – em 99% das vezes – permanecer na faixa correta (e, para os pedestres, manterem-se fora da rua). Gostaria de escoltar este princípio a alguns tópicos mais controversos, mas deixarei isso para outro dia.