Ian Winchester

Civilization and the European Origins of the Great Interrogations

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In the earliest phase the European interrogation of Nature and of Man were subordinate to the then dominant obsession, the interrogation of God. The universities (and there were only European universities then) and their monastic and secular offshoots or counterparts, were obsessed by the project of asking and answering questions about God via our rediscovery of Greek civilization. Our route to the understanding of nature and of mankind was via our understanding of God. Thomas Aquinas is the epitome of this achievement: the reconciliation of Greek thought, especially Aristotle, with the bible and tranditions of the Church. In the beginning of the university movement we had lost Greece, its language and its books. For this adventure we needed the help of the Arabs, or more strictly speaking, the scholarly Jews who straddled Arabic and Latinate European civilization, who helped return Greek to us.

Oddly, this phase of common European development had little or no impact on Arabic civilization in spite of our dependency on its possession of Greek texts we had lost. The systematic theology, and the systematic study of nature and ourselves subordinate to that theology, has no place in Arabic and North African Islamic culture in the sense that it had in the Middle Ages in Europe. Nor does it have any counterparts in India or China. It is only with the next great "interrogation", the interrogation of Nature, that European civilization awakens world wide interest.

After Newton, European universities lead the interrogation of nature, in the nineteenth century, the Germany universities overwhelmingly so. This is an interrogation in which the tables were turned, slowly, on theology and on the study of mankind from a theological vantage point. Though for Newton, as for his other 17th century contemporary, Leibniz, the interrogation of God was their primary aim. Little did they know that their work would pave the way for the dominance of the interrogation of nature over the interrogation of God. By the middle of the nineteenth century Nietzsche could announce with astonishment that "God is dead". For, God and his study was no longer placed in European civilzation in the way that He had been since the founding of the pan-European university movement.

With Darwin, with Freud, with Einstein, with Russell as indeed with the entire panoply of important twentieth century thinkers as well, the interrogation of God is not the aim via the interrogation of Nature. The interrogation of nature is of primary importance in and of itself, Indeed, it became the model for the interrogation of God and of mankind in the 20th century. As mineteenth century figtures, Marx, Weber, Darwin, Freud all saw their investigations of mankind as scientific, as analogues of Newton's work. Yet without his aim.

Einstein, who like Russell and Freud spanned the 19th and 20th centuries, spoke of wanting to know God's thoughts, as expressed in the laws of physics---perhaps he should be seen as a deeply religious agnostic. But his religion had to do with the rationality, beauty and simplicity of the workings of nature, not of the things of Christianity or Judaism. For him, as for Whitehead, the Divine was in the world, not behind it. The interrogation of nature in our time may also be the interrogation of God, just as the development of new technology in our time based on our studies of nature may be revelatory of Being, as Heidegger would have it. But we only think such things in our time after the fact. It is not essential. And this is probably why European science and technology, including that of North America, is so appealing to the rest of the world. It works and it is transmitted without God. It supports a world cvilization which tolerates indefinitely many cultures and sub-cultures. And it is about to spawn a new phase, largely due to the latest impact of European culture transmitted through the universities and the intellectual class.

I mean the growing importance, perhaps to dominance, of the interrogation of mankind as an activity in itself, independent from the prior two great interrogative phases of European civilization. Whether this phase of European intellectual ferment will subordinate the interrogation of nature as quickly as the interrogation of nature subordinated the interrogation of God, only time will tell. This seems to be a phase, like that of the study of nature, that the North Americans are also participating in and the rest of the world is slowly awakening to. Its symptoms are the restrictions on science and technology by humane considerations. So far the phase takes the form,"This you shall not do" (more nuclear reactors, human cloning). It has not yet come to "This you shall not know about nature". If this becomes dominant a 21st century Nietzsche will have to announce the Death of Science. Or perhaps it has already been done.

The great Viennese and Cambridge philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, found himself totally out of time with the era of progress, of science and of technology, which was the 20th century. He is often seen as a figure hearking to a better past. But I am inclined to think that his role is rather to announce for the 21st century a message analogous to that which Nietzsche announced for the 19th.

This is the view from Canada, of a new cultural role of Europe and its children, on behalf of the only civilization we have. But I see the interrogation of Mankind as our dominant civilized mode still only through a glass darkly.

30. März 2001

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