Ways of Knowing


Jacques-Louis David, Andromache Mourning Hector (1783)

There are a few books one encounters in the course of one’s life that prove to be transformative. In most cases, one is not expecting this. But it happens, and you know that you’ll never look at the world in quite the same way. For me, one text that was particularly life-changing was a slender volume by the classical scholar John Finley, entitled Four Stages of Greek Thought. It was as if, within its pages, I discovered what kind of writer I wanted to be; even, what kind of life I wanted to lead.

Finley distinguishes between the heroic-visionary world of the Homeric Greeks and the theoretical-rational world of their successors. There is a scene in the Iliad, he tells us, in which Hector briefly leaves the battlefield and returns to Troy, to visit his wife and infant son. Standing in front of his house, he reaches out to take the child in his arms, but the boy draws back, frightened at Hector’s helmet with its horsehair crest. Hector laughs, takes off the helmet, and puts it down; and Homer then records how the helmet sits there on the ground, all shiny and motionless, reflecting the light of the sun. The Homeric world, says Finley, is one of brilliant particulars, fixed entities that are what they are, nothing more or less. It is not an especially comforting world, he tells us, but it is at least this: absolutely clear.

Happiness, one sometimes thinks, is clarity of vision, moments when things stand clear in sharpest outline . . . as if revealed for the first time.

He goes on:

However intoxicating the attractions of intellect, and however essential to the structures by which we live, something in us wants also the clear signals of the senses by which alone the world is made fresh and definite.

This is, I suppose, the world of childhood, made magical by its very realism; and there certainly is something intoxicating about it: the wind in one’s hair, the shock of a cool lake on a warm summer’s day, the dry texture of an autumn leaf. Yet Finley uses the word “intoxicating” not to refer to the world of sensual immediacy, but to that of the intellect, which has its own siren song. Once we enter the world of Socrates and Plato, and the “sunlit tangibility of the fourth century” (fine phrase, that), there is no going back. The experience of rationality, of conceptual clarity, is so overwhelming that once “infected,” the mind will settle for nothing less. When Archimedes (allegedly) cried “Eureka!” in his bathtub, his excitement was over having discovered a pattern (in this case, the law of specific gravity), not over the sensual impact of the water on his skin.

This issue of pattern is the key to the phenomenon of intellectual intoxication, and probably first occurs, in a formal sense, in the work of Plato. “Noetic” understanding, the job of the philosopher-king, moves along a vertical line, upwards toward the gods. Indeed, it is widely accepted that this vertical model is based on the shamanic or revealed knowledge of the Mystery Religions that were popular in ancient Greece. One application of it can be seen in Plato’s Republic, in the famous “parable of the cave,” in which people sit with their backs to the light and take the shadows cast on the wall for reality. Such individuals are asleep, says Plato, whereas the true philosopher, the one who is awake, turns to the light, the actual source of the perceived phenomena.

What you see, then, is not what you get; real knowledge requires this type of “vertical” understanding, this digging beneath the surface. It is not for nothing that Freud compared his own analytical method to the science of archaeology. (Indeed, Heinrich Schliemann was digging up the ruins of Troy during Freud’s lifetime.) What is on the surface, for Freud, is social behavior; what lies underneath this is repressed sexuality (hence the title of one of his most famous books, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life). In the case of Marx, the surface consists of class relations; the reality, the underlying pattern, is the mode of production of a society at any given stage in its history. For Gassendi, Descartes, and Newton, gross objects were mere appearances; the reality was atomic particles. A sunset may be beautiful, but the “truth” of the situation is refracted light. And so on. Cognition of this sort can hit you with the force of a hurricane.

The alternative mode of knowing is more “horizontal”: what you see is what you get. Or as Wittgenstein once put it, “depths are on the surface.” The whole phenomenological school–I am thinking of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty in particular–argues for direct physical experience as the key to the world (the sun gleaming off of Hector’s helmet, for example). The power of this type of understanding derives from the sheer “is-ness” of things, their pure ontology. To “know” a sunset as refracted light may be to not know it at all.

My oldest friend and I discovered, soon after we met, that we shared the same dilemma: we were torn between these two worlds. Both of them were intoxicating, in their own special way; so much so that we found it impossible to give either of them up. His solution was to create two separate, consecutive lives. Thus he spent three decades as a professional scientist, after which he retired to devote himself to photography, yoga, and jazz piano. My solution was to try to bring the two worlds together, and it cost me dearly. No university department could figure out what the hell I was doing, and typically regarded my writing as weird. In a culture severely split between mind and body, I could only be regarded as some sort of “cult figure,” at best. And really, what else could I expect? If you are going to insist that the dominant culture is ontologically crippled, it is not likely that that culture is going to stand up and cheer.

Reading Finley, in any case, provided me with a keen sense of validation, because he doesn’t end his analysis with a description of the two worlds and leave it at that. The “character of a great age,” he writes, is when the two worlds come together, and when, as a result, “meanings seem within people’s reach.” According to him, this unity found its greatest expression in Greece in the fifth century B.C., somewhere between Homer and Aristotle:

Part of the grip on the imagination that fifth-century Athens never ceases to hold is that these two kinds of worlds met then, the former culminating as the latter came into being. Aeschylus and Sophocles spoke for the older outlook that saw things through shape; Socrates and Thucydides for the nascent mind that saw them through idea.

It seems unlikely that we shall ever have such an age again, though who knows what the world will be like five hundred years hence. For now, at least, the integration of mind and body will probably remain a private experience: the intellect that feels, the sensuality that thinks. But ultimately, the commitment of the writer, or of anyone invested in the world of letters, the larger culture, cannot be restricted to individual experience, for solipsism is not an answer to anything. Putting meaning “within people’s reach” is finally what it is all about.

morris-bermanMorris Berman is well known as an innovative cultural historian and social critic. He has taught at a number of universities in Europe and North America, and has held visiting endowed chairs at Incarnate Word College (San Antonio), the University of New Mexico, and Weber State University. During 1982-88 he was the Lansdowne Professor in the History of Science at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Berman won the Governor’s Writers Award for Washington State in 1990, and was the first recipient of the annual Rollo May Center Grant for Humanistic Studies in 1992. He is the author of a trilogy on the evolution of human consciousness–The Reenchantment of the World (1981), Coming to Our Senses (1989), and Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality (2000)–and in 2000 his Twilight of American Culture was named a “Notable Book” by the New York Times Book Review. During 2003-6 he was Visiting Professor in Sociology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Dr. Berman relocated to Mexico in 2006, and during 2008-9 was a Visiting Professor at the Tecnologico de Monterrey, Mexico City.