architecture, authenticity, Christopher Peterson, Communism, Jayant Lele, Karl Marx, Martin Seligman, modernism, Paul Ricoeur, Randall Collins, Richard Davidson, Stephen Walker, United States
Sunday’s post, on modernism and the change in values from “old-fashioned” to “old-school,” might help explain a question that I and others have pondered here: why do human beings so often prefer what is old? Stephen Walker noted the point in his comment on Yavanayāna Buddhism: people often seem unwilling to credit themselves with innovations, to accept that their ideas are new. Rather they present themselves as defending old ideas when they come up with new ones. (In his The Sociology of Philosophies, Randall Collins suggests that this is a typical pattern in human thought (especially in Japan, but elsewhere as well): “innovation through conservatism.” A while back I asked a similar question about authenticity: why do we privilege authenticity so much, when its distinguishing feature would seem to be the absence of choice?
Maybe we can start to see an answer now that we’ve had a chance to look back on the alternative. The twentieth century, in many ways, was the century of modernism – the rejection of the past as a guide to living. As I noted last time, modernism brought us Pruitt-Igoe, the grand and innovative housing project that was dynamited as unlivable. But more than that, I think, it brought us Communism, the form of government practised in the Soviet Union, China and their allies in the mid-twentieth century.
Communists tried to design a new world effectively from scratch, a world based entirely on what should be, with little reference to what is or has been. The degree of connection between existing Communism and the originating works of Karl Marx has been a matter for endless debate, but the modernist tendency in Marx’s own work is very strong. Among his most beautiful passages is the one describing the rapid changes of modern capitalism, in which “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” For all his critiques of capitalism, Marx was almost breathlessly excited by its ability to change the existing structures of the world. And those structures were not acceptable; they had to change, as soon as possible.
One might imagine a less modernist Marxism. My father stresses Marx’s faithful approach to reading G.W.F. Hegel and learning from him – a hermeneutics of listening rather than suspicion, in Paul Ricoeur’s terms. Similarly one could imagine the attempt to build a more equal and less alienated world slowly, from the bottom up, beginning with cooperatives and intentional communities, with government imposition taking on a more minor role. But the modernist Marxism of historical fact was a more large-scale version of the destructive thinking that produced Pruitt-Igoe – as one can see from its architecture.
So far I’ve been looking at the political level. But individually too, we seem to do poorly without the past. The twentieth century in the United States had unprecedented access to the findings of scientific psychology, rigorous, empirical, rational exploration of the human mind – yet every American generation suffered more depression than the one that came before it. Today the cutting edge of psychology itself aims at a synthesis of past and present, whether in Richard Davidson’s dialogue with the Dalai Lama or Peterson and Seligman’s study of philosophies of virtue.
With all of this in mind, we may now return to the desire to seek authentication from what is old. Today we can see the wisdom of the past more clearly after a century’s worth of attempts to overthrow it. That knowledge wasn’t there in the same way before the twentieth century – but perhaps people had a sense of it all the same. When people preserve their traditions for centuries, they do it for a reason. Something about it makes sense, and makes good sense – in a way that may make sense to us as well, if we’re ready to listen.
There’s a middle ground to be sought here, of course – some things really do need changing. It’s just about impossible to justify the maintenance of pre-20th-century gender roles. But at the same time, we do have reason to be cautious of innovation. Go too far in the Yavanayāna direction, and we risk losing everything that made Buddhism worthwhile in the first place.
michael reidy said:
In each generation the tradition needs to be reinterpreted and it has been said that the mark of a great tradition is the number of interpretations it can sustain. What are occasionally promoted as new departures or instaurations can be no more than a piggybacking on the name. A Buddhism without its characteristic doctrines is like a bread recipe that leave out flour, all accidents without substance. This is true of religion without the supernatural. Tradition is a collective noetic engram worn so deep that the moment you entertain its initial point of departure you are drawn into characteristic patterns of thought. It requires a special sort of fidelity for genuine renewal to occur.
Amod Lele said:
I’m still skeptical about the supernatural, whether we really need it. I tend to think that rather than a bread recipe without flour, it’s a cake recipe without flour – the most delicious kind!
Your first paragraph reads quite amusingly to a scientist. In science, only the innovative is valuable; if you’ve just reproduced someone else’s work, then your work probably isn’t worth publishing. It’s sometimes good to have a pedigree of ideas -recent or historical ideas from which yours branched off- but there is more pride in the branching-off, in the expansion and alteration, than in the pedigree.
There is of course more detail and complexity; there are a lot of institutional conservatisms in science, despite the push for innovation in research. (Off the top of my head, I can think of at least 3 gigantic structural issues that everyone seems to be aware of yet nobody can change.) Still, when people self-select into a path that demands innovation, these cultural-level restraints can be eluded quite thoroughly.
Amod Lele said:
Absolutely – today, academia in general prefers the new. You can’t get by on faithfulness to the old in the humanities either. In the ’60s and before, there were many professors, at small colleges and regional universities at least, who simply aimed (in their view) to pass on the greatness of the past to new generations. Anyone who took that approach today would not have a career; you must produce innovative research. “Publish or perish” can never mean “publish something old”; even if you’re studying something old, you must produce a new interpretation, a new translation, a new edition. I suspect part of the reason for this is that the humanities and social sciences often have a severe case of science envy.
Though now that I think about it in these terms, there’s another parallel in that one isn’t supposed to produce anything new in the act of learning science. In high-school or undergrad science class you may do the experiments yourself, but the result is a foregone conclusion; you do this in order to learn the old results. Scientific research must produce something new, but I suppose perhaps that may be little more than redundancy: the idea of research, as we understand it in the humanities or sciences, is that one is creating new knowledge.
The thing I probably didn’t say enough about in the post is that we, in the age of science and modernism, are weird. Most human beings have preferred the old; even great centres of higher learning were primarily devoted to reproducing old knowledge, through teaching, copying, chanting. The preference for the old is shared by most non-modern ones; and even in a society so influenced by science and modernism, we still have a strong tendency to share that preference. That’s the phenomenon I intended the post to explain.
michael reidy said:
Touché! Scepticism is your epistemic duty and generally no one becomes converted to a religion on the basis of the quality and quantity of their leelas and mahimas. Nor indeed might it be for the total coherence of their doctrines. Would it be too banal to hold that there is a homey feeling to it even if that home is slightly dysfunctional.
Your final observation about tradition is astute.
michael reidy said:
To each his own of course but where society is concerned science is hardly a useful paradigm unless you view the Great Experiments and New Departures of the 20th. Century as successful in that they have failed utterly and are thus eliminated from the list of useful empirical investigations. More utopias will no doubt be devised requiring a new type of human being to bring them into existence. It’s all very expensive. Why not start with the simple and stupid like a rational electoral system for America. Perhaps the polarisation there is merely an artefact of majoritarianism. The beauty of that proposal is that it has been done in other countries and it has worked. What’s wrong with replication? Is it un-American?
I don’t know much about curriculae in America but here (British Isles) it goes like Alice: “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” The PhD will boldly go on from there dicing ever finer. How rare the really new is.
Because comments on your old On Authenticity post are closed, here is where I will leave you with today’s survey on what exactly authenticity means:
Amod Lele said:
Beautiful. Thanks for this. It really nails it. I love Cat and Girl.