Three Cenoscopic Dimensions
We have always lived, we still live and our descendants will continue to live in the cenoscopic world. Since that is where our homeland lies, ideoscopic ventures will inevitably carry traces of the language and perspectives so familiar to us. This will be true however deeply its voyages distance themselves from domestic shores. Not only will we find ourselves referring, almost biologically, to the ‘birth’ and ‘death’ of stars, give astronomers’ civil names to comets and lunar craters, we will even distinguish subatomic quarks from each other by referring to our own familiar coordinates of ‘up’ and ‘down’, and classify leptons – this one is delicious – according to their ‘flavors’. Why, we don’t even shy away from using baby-talk when casually referring to the solemn ideoscopic inauguration of the cosmos: we pull the pacifier from our lips and giggle as we say ‘Big Bang’. There will also be slightly ambiguous areas of overlap between cenoscopy and ideoscopy. We can, for instance, catch sight of a galaxy or two with our naked eyes, spot a few of the larger molecules, and no one in Hiroshima or Nagasaki had any doubts that their everyday experience was invaded by the then very visible power of the atom. Blurry borders, however, do not cease to be borders, and once you are beyond the blur, the ambiguity unmistakably fades. These are two diverse universes of knowledge. And however many nominal mementos you may carry along into these alien probes, the differences will still be obvious, and their exegesis imperative.
Although my focus here has been on philosophy as the privileged exercise of reason within the cenoscopic context, this is not to say that reason is the only road on which we walk in our common experience. Far from it. Our direct bodily experience in moving about, taking a stroll, practicing a sport or performing exercises is obviously presupposed before we can philosophize at all – and certainly before we can embark upon whatever ideoscopic adventure we choose. Exceptions like Stephen Hawking are so remarkable, and so edifying, precisely because they are exceptions. Our ability to overcome crushing handicaps is simply a witness to the inner power of our minds and souls, and a reminder that the body is there to work for the sake of higher goods. Humanistic studies and the arts, at their best, are designed to keep our sensory and emotional experience in tune with those goods.
Now philosophy is practiced to some extent by everyone endowed with an intellect, whether in an amateur and shorthand mode in most cases, or with method and elaboration on the part of the few who are called to dedicate their lives to it. But the high vocation of the love of wisdom (the definition of which I ponder in this post) is flanked by two companion cenoscopic dimensions providing knowledge of at least equal importance, and without which philosophy itself tends to bet either unduly absolutized, or (worse) reduced to a servile shadow of its true self. These are, on the one hand, the humanities and the arts, and on the other, religion and spirituality. I will comment briefly on both.
Humanities and the (Fine) Arts
We first must resist the modern temptation to drag both philosophy and religion (or ‘religious studies’) under this rubric, or under one of the ideoscopic classes. In the country where I teach (Brazil), philosophy finds its academic home in departments of ‘human sciences’ (more or less coextensive with the English world’s ‘social sciences’, but not entirely), along with history and geography, for example. The academic residence of religion nowadays is an even more complicated matter which I discuss elsewhere (in My Writings). Let it suffice here to declare that defenders of philosophy in any pre-modern sense (of Platonic or Aristotelian vintage) will regard such classification as a demotion and humiliation. That serious adherents to any of the major religious traditions would feel the same at seeing their convictions and practices similarly subordinated, goes without saying.
What I understand as the humanities are basically four areas of irreducibly human experience, predicated on our characteristic word- and language-oriented natures (speaking, reading and writing), and our lives situated necessarily, and consciously, in time and space. Thus: 1. language; 2. literature; 3. history; 4. geography. As a side-note, nothing concerns me more about my university students in recent years than how poorly they speak their mother tongue (or write it, if they write at all), how little they read, how ignorant (and even uninterested) they are about the world that went before them in time (history), and the world beyond their own neighborhood (geography).
Learning one’s own language well should be a foremost educational objective of any person intent on living a fully human life. I suggest to my students that they do this, and then – at least ‘instrumentally’, i.e. enough to read basic texts and intelligently use lexical references – learn another modern European tongue. For those interested in going deeper, the exploration of one classical tongue (Latin, Greek or Sanskrit, for example), can also be embarked upon. I discourage them from becoming polyglots (unless their upbringing included this as a natural consequence of living in a foreign country, or in a bilingual family). I discuss the problems with this here.
Then, one should familiarize oneself with the best literature available in those languages and develop the habit of regular reading. Certainly the classics should have pride of place; they bear the name of ‘classic’ for a reason. But there are plenty of very good books that are not classics and yet can be profitably read, especially by those who might find the standard classics intimidating. One can easily find good guides to avoiding worthless ‘pop’ books and to steering clear of contemporary specimens of the written word which often only compound the confusion we already live in. Life is short.
History and geography should be explored incrementally, and without comprehensive ambitions. You can never master either, so doing so should not be the goal in education. What you can do is learn to navigate intelligently and attentively in both, and develop an alert eye for relative importance and significance, avoiding mere lists of dates or longitudes and latitudes of places. Remembering the past in perspective and travelling selectively within the wealth of our temporal and spacial contexts, will become a vital background and interpretive reference to all you thereafter see and hear.
As for the fine arts, a word or two about art itself. What today is usually called art tends to be restricted to the visual arts, with both music and literature – and, for more technical reasons, architecture – generally located in separate departments at universities, or civil institutions. This is largely a continuation of a tendency in the ancient world to attribute to the ‘Muses’ (the mythic daughters of Zeus and Memory) only the arts that address the ear. Our ears seem to be more spiritually open to inspiration, as – unlike our eyes – are always physically open. Included here would be music itself, but also to all forms of poetry, drama and narrative. The visual arts, in contrast, find their works more connected with matter and thus with the ‘servile’ labors of preparing materials, cutting canvas, building edifices, etc. Nonetheless, philosophically considered (at least with Aristotle), all of these would be seen as equally productive activities (poiein) and thus susceptible of being disciplined and guided by a kind of knowledge, or ‘know-how’. This is precisely what the ancients called techne (translated into Latin as ars).
Confusingly, two further ambiguities muddy the waters of distinction still more. First: 1) A medieval discrimination between the servile arts (those performed in view of some end beyond themselves, like agriculture, medicine, culinary art, etc.) and the liberal arts (those performed – in theory, at least – for their own sake and the light and intuition they afford, like the language and mathematical arts); and 2) before modern times, and especially before the Industrial Revolution, the so familiar distinction of the ‘fine arts’ and ‘technology’. The two contrasts are related in dealing with the question of ‘use’. In more tradition-oriented ages, the idea of making something that is useful (like a chair, a spoon, a hat, a building, even a comb) that was not simultaneously beautiful, was less common, and often enough unthinkable. This is why contemporary furniture lovers often go for ‘antiques’. It is also, I suppose, why Americans fly by the thousands to Europe in order to wander about in its cities, which are – in a proportion far outstripping what even New York or San Francisco can offer – stunningly beautiful. They are also surprisingly efficient at allowing people to get around without bulldozing asphalt highways through them.
Thus, my reference here is only to what we usually mean today by the ‘fine arts’. These are, namely, the visual arts: architecture, sculpture, painting, photography and the numerous minor varieties; the performing arts: drama, dance and music in all their forms and combinations; and today, we must add the ‘seventh art’: film (in all its multiple manifestations). One can fan out from these into subdivisions and hybrid arts, but the ones enumerated here are enough to make my cenoscopic point. Along with the humanities, the fine arts provide our senses, our emotions, our imaginations and our memories with the vicarious experiences which provide some measure of compensation for what our own limited time on earth, and our always limited opportunities for travel, cannot afford us.
I have already philosophized at length about religion (albeit in Portuguese, see My Writings). Here I will only describe how religion and spirituality also find their proper home within the cenoscopic context, and how they complement and enrich both philosophy and the humanities with the arts. Since religion typically addresses the question of transcendence, it is directed to the person as a whole (traditionally symbolized by the heart). Whereas the arts and humanities approach us preferentially through the senses and the imagination, and philosophy through reason and reflection, religion goes for the jugular.
Still, we need to determine whether that transcendence is of a piece with some or all of the four ideoscopic domains, or not. Each of them is, after all, a region of human experience by definition lying ‘beyond’ the day-to-day world around us. One could even argue that religious practices, in their endeavors to access transcendence, actually seem to mimic the four marks of ideoscopic method outlined at the outset of this essay. Are not the ‘graces’, ‘energies’, ‘states of consciousness’, ‘siddhis‘, ‘favors’, etc., typically offered to religious adepts much like the telescopes and other contraptions used in specialized science to ‘pass over’ into a new dimension of knowledge? And are not the churches, temples, mosques, synagogues, gurdwaras and pagodas in some ways like the controlled experiments of the scientists – the holy places marking off the sacred from the profane as experiments mark off their area of inquiry from the rest of the world? Is this not analogous to the scientist separating the sought phenomenon from extraneous factors? And as the ideoscopic specialist commonly focuses on efficient and material causality to the exclusion of formal and final, do not religious practitioners similarly, in prayer or meditation, aim for what is not of this world, to the exclusion (or at least ‘bracketing’) of that which is?
Not really, but the parallel is interesting. The ‘going beyond’ which is germane to ideoscopic science usually advances by taking steps through space or time; religious transcendence characteristically opens a door that is within the depths of our personhood, and engages a transcendence sui generis, one that is akin to intellectual intuition, but which goes much deeper; it is, the the classical formulation, a transcendence that is immanent, and an immanence that is transcendent. The human person finds no religious enlightenment, liberation or salvation by floating in outer space in a cumbersome spacesuit, or by nose-diving down into the inhospitable quantum world, or by regressing backward (to some pre-human state) or even progressing forward (to some ‘transhuman’ state); and although they have tried valiantly, even the social sciences have only helped to understand how we got to where we are, but not why we are anywhere at all. Our existential predicament remains.
So just as the arts and humanities are all greeted and practiced only within the Lebenswelt of the cenoscopic, likewise the religious quest can only make sense within that same matrix where our lives unfold in all their specifically human shapes and sizes, needs and hopes.
Philosophy (or Cenoscopic Science)
The purpose of philosophy is to make us fully aware of what we already implicitly know, so that we can, in turn, fully become what we already potentially are. This I take to be the summary description of what philosophy, both theoretical and practical, aims for. Nowhere in the world has this project been more fully understood and more perfectly articulated than in the legacy of the compact triadic dynasty of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. For three successive and contiguous generations to throw up three philosophical geniuses of the first rank, and in such a way that the first teaches the second, and the second the third, is nothing less than a providential dispensation, the ignorance or denial of which we dare at our own peril. The evident launching pad of the mind’s journey in its confrontation with being (our noein in the face of einai) was accepted by all three, although a menu of possibilities were rehearsed in Plato’s dialogues and explored with such intensity that the greatest Platonist of them all, Aristotle, could escort the best reflections into the newly identified outlines of the sciences, many of which we still use today.