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’, or that a fugitive phenomenon is seized and put under the spotlight; 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. We 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 – for instance, the textured surface face of the real as it unfolds before us as we walk through a park – 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? As the solar sphere climbs majestically to its noonday paramountcy, it just doesn’t empirically work when we try to watch the horizon sink in the same way that we watch the sun go up. After all – I feel like a philosophical freedom-fighter – what right have these new purveyors of ideoscopic perspectives to such imperialistic epistemology?

What is more, this dictatorial shifting of our sensibility is not even consistent with science’s own very modern conclusions about motion and relativity. If there is one consensual conviction that has come out of four centuries of modern physics, it is that there is no fixed topological 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; in each of our perceptions, we get our bearings 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 obviously truth in heliocentrism, and no cenoscopic thinker worth his salt will deny it. But why should that perspective be dominant 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. If he says: “Wow! That was one gorgeous sunrise!”, is he just revealing to us that he is 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 – arouses 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 often told the stability we witness is an illusion, and that 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 encumbrance 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 that you can imagine that; you can’t). Our nearest galaxy ‘neighbor’ is two and a half million light-years away.  And, 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 inconceivable stretches of light-years, inviting us to imagine riding a beam of photons and getting to our destination in, maybe, a few hundred thousand years. We all smile at the fantasy. But then they inform us that the starlight we see here and now does not give us empirical information on the actual being of the very stars we are admiring; it only tells us 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 we are being ideoscopically taught 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 were to 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. So with the stars. 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: 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 modern science can give us a new perspective on why the sun ‘appears’ to rise and set, enlightening us indeed on how the earth – in the great ‘out there’ – 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 sunrises and sunsets. 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 (but don’t tell them) – 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, full of new and fascinating perspectives 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 lose purchase on our humanity. And a particularly surprising feature of this cenoscopic cognition – one that may sound offensive to adherents of scientism – is that it is actually more certain and secure (not only to us, but even in itself) than all the results of ideoscopic science taken 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 so-called paradigm shifts. The cenoscopic world, in contrast, is the home of the perennial, the universal, the formal and final par excellence. 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