Thinking about thinking…

Historian, Dr. John Lukacs

Historian, Dr. John Lukacs

“…within the universe our situation is unique…we can no longer disregard the central condition of our existential involvement in the universe.

               The epistemological recognition of the centrality of human nature is complemented by two corresponding recognitions of great importance: by the restoration of our situation in the center of the universe (in space), and in the center of history (in time).

               There is nothing very high-flown about this: it is part of our efforts at the restoration of common sense.  The earth may be or may not be at the mathematical center of some universe; but it is the center of our universe, and the most important part of the universe, at that.  This, again, is no longer merely a poetic but a pragmatic statement.  It springs, first and foremost, from the recognition that it is senseless to talk about a universe which exists apart from our minds.

               In addition, a sensible argument about our centrality in the universe was made in 1942, during one of the darkest years of this century, by Teilhard de Chardin―again, as in Toynbee’s case, not in his somewhat overrated magna opera but in a small essay, “La Place de l’Homme dans l’Univers.”  What is man’s place in the universe? Until the sixteenth century no one would doubt that man was at the center.  Then, from Galileo to Darwin, “this somewhat naïve anthropocentrism of our ancestors” rapidly dissolved; indeed, during the nineteenth century “excessively so.”  In a few generations man has been reduced to near-nothing in a universe where his earth is but an insignificant grain of sand, and where Homo sapiens seems but “a poor little leaf, among  millions of other leaves on the great tree of life.” Yet, after having reached this extreme point of man’s “de-centration,” the pendulum now seems to return toward a new concept of man’s centrality.”

               If we look at a scale marking the size of bodies in the universe, man occupies a position in the middle, just about exactly between two extremes (the size of the galaxy, 1022 cm, or 100,000 light years; the size of molecules, 10-20 cm, or billions of these within the space of a dot).  What is more important (and this, too, Pascal had sensed) is that these two extremes of size are not only quantitative but qualitative, meaning that, as we approach these extremes, the essential properties of matter become transformed.  In our central, terrestrial, moderate, reasonable, human zone of life the rules of Euclidean geometry hold, simultaneity prevails, light and heat are definable, inanimate objects are generally immobile: this is not so at the far extremes, in the dimension of the very large and the very small.

               But man is not only in the “middle”: he is also the most complex of all organisms.  And this “complexity” is a dimension too.  In a universe of the two near-infinities of the very large and the very small, man is in the middle”: but in the sense of the dimension of “complexity” man is not merely in the middle but he represents a third extremity.  To put this in other words: there is no such thing as totally inert matter: every element in the universe contains, to some small degree, an element of “inferiority,” or call it “spontaneity” or “con-science.”  In the most primitive of bodies this factor remains imperceptible, even though there, too, it exists to a minimal extent: but at the most complex extremity of man this factor, through man’s thinking capability, becomes dominant.

               It is thus that the older anthropocentric view of the universe contains much that is still true; but we must conceive and understand it on a higher level.  And it is thus that the Baconian and the Newtonian view of human nature and of the universe is no longer as relevant to our situation as it was for a long time.  Bacon’s famous statement that “knowledge is power” must seem to us to be not much more than a platitude, and a relatively shallow platitude at that, the main reason for this being that we can no longer proceed from the assumption that man’s principal business is the knowledge of his environment; to the contrary, our historical and scientific experiences in the twentieth century militate for the thesis that man’s principal business is his knowledge of man.  But let me repeat for the last time that this is now something more than a moralistic or traditionalist reiteration of Socrates’ “Know thyself,” or of Pope’s “The proper study of mankind is man.”  It is a rediscovery on a deeper level.  Of all living beings in the universe man is the most complex one; therefore the study of man by man is not only higher in the hierarchy of knowledge than his study of less complex organisms, but his understanding of the human conditions of knowledge is inseparable from  his study of nature, of matter, of thought, indeed, of everything.  This existential condition is no longer the exhortation of antiscientific aesthetes or of religious philosophers alone; it is inherent in the discoveries of the greatest scientists themselves.  Pascal has proved truer than Descartes; we are, again, back in the center of the universe, and we must, anew, confront ourselves alone.” ― Historical Consciousness, Copyright © 1968 by John Lukacs, Harper & Row, Publishers, Page 269.

 

About Michael

Retired military officer; retired Air Force civil servant; retired executive, DS Information Systems Corporation; writer; researcher; reader and avid yachtsman.
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