"The One Thing I Know," said Socrates . . .
. . . Is that I Know Nothing
About five years ago, I awoke one morning to the realization that I could get rid of some books without enraging my household gods. I rarely opened books that I’d already read and was unlikely to read those I hadn’t. They were simply accumulating dust in our crowded little home.
That very day I filled four large plastic vats with hardcovers and got in touch with a used-book dealer, Half Moon Books, in Kingston, NY. The co-owner lived a short distance from me and was glad to come to my house to have a look.
I left her in my living room to explore my vats. Within a few minutes, she was standing in the doorway of my office, offering me $350 for what she said was a first edition of Kerouac’s On the Road. I thanked her for her honesty — I had examined the book the night before and failed to recognize it as a first edition — and I sold her the entire trove for $400 plus a 10%-off credit at her bookstore. Then I got to ask her all kinds of questions about the used-book business, including how much she thought she’d be able to get for the Kerouac (“A thousand if I’m lucky, seven hundred if I’m not”).
Five years later — that is, two weeks ago — I paid a visit to Half Moon as part of my new campaign to spiff up my literacy. Among the used books that I bought at 10% off was Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, which I’d been meaning to read since before his death in 1994.
Alas, Lasch has now joined the list of philosophers whose work I’ve not been able to get through during my literacy campaign — the others being Hannah Arendt (The Origins of Totalitarianism), and Ernest Becker (The Denial of Death), the latest in a long chain of philosophers whose writings have evoked in me the same question: Sez who?
In the case of Lasch and Becker, what I couldn’t get past was their use of Freudian terms, as in: “As authority figures in modern society lose their ‘credibility,’ the superego in individuals increasingly derives from the child’s primitive fantasies about his parents — fantasies charged with sadistic rage — rather than from internalized ego ideals formed by later experience . . .” (Lasch, p. 12)
Yeah, maybe so, sounds plausible. But “ego,” “superego,” “primitive fantasies” and such terminology should be presented, to my mind, as metaphors, not as realities. Nobody has ever seen an “id” in real life, except in the classic movie Forbidden Planet. Which was a movie.
As for Hannah Arendt, what bugged me were her high-flying assertions about human society, which, in my very abbreviated reading of her, she backed up with hardly any field evidence. When her insights jibed with my own intuitions, I admired her brilliance, but when I was doubtful and wished to have a little proof, well, that’s when I started feeling stupid — I must not be getting it! — and soon I would pick up a novel instead. In fiction, at least, the writer is showing, not knowing.
What do most of us really know, even if we’re well-educated? My own store of knowledge consists mostly of sensual data and a few tricks (if I spill red wine on a friend’s carpet, I can dump a mountain of table salt on the puddle, let it thoroughly dry, then vacuum it, and the stain will disappear). But when it comes to psychology, consciousness, gender, war and peace, human nature, and society in general, most of my assertions are not facts but beliefs — beliefs based mostly on other people’s reports about what yet other people believe.
As I get old, I find myself believing less, asserting less, and certainly mistaking fewer of my beliefs as facts. This can make me feel pretty isolated — I don’t belong to any belief groups! — as well as barely literate. I know so little!
Another book that I spotted on my trip to Half Moon Books was Norman Levitt’s Prometheus Bedeviled: Science and the Contradictions of Contemporary Culture (1999), which I had written about pretty extensively in my own book, Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist. Levitt promotes modern science as the one realm of inquiry that uniquely yields facts (most scientists would call them “theories” supported by tons of “evidence”), not just beliefs. In his book, Levitt proposes the establishment of a regulatory scientific body analogous to the Federal Reserve Bank, a body that would grant science “a social authority commensurate with its astonishing success in living up to its own ambitions.” Although I argued with him, in my book, about his overestimation of science, I do like thinking about the impact a Federal Board of Science might have had, if it had existed for the past couple of decades, upon public belief and policy vis a vis climate change, vaccines, pesticides, plastic pollution, and other issues.
The scientific method occupies its own special berth when it comes to human knowledge, as the path that first mobilizes intuition to postulate this and that, and then is capable of transcending our intuition to reveal the actual (sometimes counter-intuitive) this, not that.
Unfortunately, however, for a rube like me, most science writing is usually even harder to get through than the previous sentence. But I keep trying . . .
—Lawrence Bush for ALTE: Getting Old Together
The topic for our next print edition is SUDDENLY, and the new deadline for writings and artworks is December 15th. Please visit our website at altegettingtogether.org to explore our current and past issues. And save the date, December 2nd, 8 pm, for our next Zoom gathering, a Winter holiday candlelighting.