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.