Monthly Archives: May 2008

“Prometheus Unbound: Karl Marx on Human Freedom”

 It is very hard to find a space today in which to read Karl Marx with an open mind; long history, and fairly severe social bias, stand squarely in the way.  At St. John’s College, however, we read every author with an open mind, as if this work were directed to us personally.  Such an approach is generally disparaged by the academic world, but it does have the advantage of freshness, and of giving open access to original thoughts so often obscured by criticism.  This lecture, given to the college, is an outcome of such an open reading of Marx’s Capital.

What emerges is a vivid picture, grounded in a Hegelian sense of the dialectic of history, of a new stage of true human freedom – a picture which looks remarkably attractive today.   Capital is a complex work, and easily misunderstood.  It begins with a theory of the operation of capitalism, founded primarily in the traditional economic theory of Adam Smith.  What Marx brings to this, apart from a steady suggestion of irony, is a severely scientific logic: what is the source of profit?  What underlies the operation of this system, and what must happen, if these principles are indeed allowed to operate?  A fundamental law emerges, and the structure of Capital at this point is strikingly parallel to that of Newton’s Principia. 

These laws lead to a situation like that we see on a world scale today, of severe dichotomy between those in the world who have, and those who have-not.  At the same time, Marx is surprisingly full of admiration for the accomplishments of capitalism; his chapter on “Great Industry” is a paean of admiration.  He sees not only the economic disparity, but at the same time the achievement of what we would now call the accomplishments of the “global economy”: cooperative labor on a vast scale.  What is being born, he sees, is a class of workers, practiced in cooperation, who see the contradiction between the new flood of products and their own immiseration.    

This sketch cannot pretend to do justice to Marx’s argument.  What emerges, though, is important to emphasize.  Out of this contradiction arises, dialectically, a new possibility, and a new understanding of the meaning of human freedom.  In the tradition of Smith, spelled out in the historic phase of capitalism, is an individualistic, competitive conception of personal freedom.  What Marx sees emerging is a richer concept of freedom: personal freedom indeed, but enriched by the possibilities of social cooperation.  This is not contradiction, but the birth of a new paradigm of the free individual whose possibilities are expanded, not contracted, by a cooperative approach to the resources of society.  

Marx’s reasoning is carefully worked, and his conclusions ring true as we look at the world today.  I have argued elsewhere that we must learn to think in terms of holism, the whole as primary.  Marx tells us that is not suppression of the individual, but liberation from the trap we are in.  Marx is a classicist at heart: he gets his notion of society as primarily whole from Aristotle, and his sense of the birth of freedom from Aeschylus and the founding of the Athenian polis, before he draws on Hegel.  This is a line of thought which I find important and deeply persuasive, in a world and a planet being torn apart by competition and the perpetual war which we see that it breeds.  

It is time that mankind arrived at some better idea of ourselves, and of human happiness and true human freedom.  This may be a good time to be reading authors who think outside our too-limited box.    

“Faraday’s Mathematics”

“Faraday’s Mathematics” is a lecture I gave at at a conference on Faraday at St. John’s College in Annapolis.  Its subtitle is “On Getting Allong Without Euclid”, for Faraday had neither studied Euclid, nor taken on board the plan of formal demonstration which most of us learn from the study of geometry.  In short, Faraday thought in his own way, following the lead of nature and experiment.  He was in effect  liberated from the presuppositions about thought and physical theory with which others in the scientific community were encumbered. 

 The result was that Faraday hit on a fundamentally new way of understanding the phenomena of electricity and magnetism – by way of the new concept of the “field”. Maxwell deeply respected Faraday’s way, and dedicated much of his own life to comprehending how Faraday worked, and what it was that Faraday had done.  The field is a fully connected system, and fields interact, not by way of their parts, but as wholes.  This was clear enough to Faraday, but it required recourse to a new sort of mathematics – Lagrangian theory – and a major reversal of conventional thinking, to articulate a formal theory in which the whole is primary, and with it a new rhetoric of explanation.   This was Maxwell’s accomplishment in his Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, a transformation I trace as a rhetorical adventure in my book Figures of Thought.

  In the end, Maxwell emerged with the astonishing claim that of them all, it was the uneducated Faraday who was the real mathematician.  If that could be so, what is mathematics?   That’s the question pursued in this lecture, which aims to find out what Maxwell could have meant.

Maxwell was clearly in earnest, and seems to be pointing to a mathematics embodied in nature, which lies deeper than either its symbolic or its logical forms.






“The Dialectical Laboratory”: A lecture on behalf of holism in the sciences


My lecture, the “Dialectical Laboratory ” (see the “lectures” section of this website) , was given as a sort of parting statement to the St. John’s College community in Santa Fe.  But though directed to the college, and expressed by way of references to certain of the “great books” of that tradition, its message is of far broader import.  The “dialectical” issue – meaning, a watershed of western thought – is between a science based on mechanical actions between disparate parts, and a holistic science in which wholeness is respected, and whole systems are regarded as fundamental, not as mere aggregations of parts.  

Each of these two very different scientific approaches has its rigorous theory, and either can be used to solve engineering problems.  But conceptually they are worlds apart, and I am convinced it’s crucial that we follow the way of holism, and learn, before it’s too late, to appreciate and work with systems – from the least living organism to the global environment – which are more than the sum of mechanical parts.  Science is moving in this direction, but there is now no time to lose! 

Comments on these remarks, as well as on the lecture itself, will be welcome in reponse to this posting. 




The Anglo Revolution in New Mexico

The series of three segments constituting the article, “The Anglo Revolution in New Mexico” was published in 1977, but it seems likely that they will raise questions just as pertinent today.  I’ve described the circumstances of the articles in an Introduction to them on the “Articles” page of this website, where the articles themselves will appear.  The first, on the Santa Rita copper mine, has already been posted; the other two are scheduled to appear shortly. 

They refer to a clash of cultures which has taken many forms, overt or otherwise, over the years.  But contrasts of cultures need not take the form of conflict: each has much to learn from the others, and the possibility is real that out of their interaction will arise, dialectically, something far better than either could be alone. 

That was my hope when this series was written, and far more, it remains my hope today.  My own current involvement with the “Cosmic Serpent” project, referred to in earlier postings, is one vehicle for that conviction: it brings together indigenous and western approaches to the natural world.  These begin in sharp contrast, but each has much to learn from the  other – and the global environment cannot wait forever for us to straighten this out!  

So it seems to me.  Comments will be welcome to this posting, but more, to the articles themselves.  I’ll be waiting toi hear!     







“Reason”, Old and New

Somewhere in the course of our western history, something fundamental has been lost: we have lost track of the wholeness of the psyche, and its membership; in a world which was whole and in which it might feel at home.   

Where did this happen?  The psyche was whole in Athens – its membership in the family, the polis and the cosmos were so presupposed that there were perhaps no words to express the separation and fragmentation so vivid to us today.   I don’t think there was a word for “objective” or “subjective”, nor was there a mind which might be thought of as a blank tablet, upon which an outside world might write. In society there was work, but no word for “job”, with the radical alienation that term implies.  I’m not suggesting life was in any sense idyllic – only that for better or for worse, the psyche was intact, and seated in the world. 

I’ll leave it to others to explain how this has come about, but somehow we now find ourselves equipped with a mind which is well-furnished with knowledge, indeed, but all too easily likened to a calculative engine, with a memory bank stored with data from an “outside” world.  We understand the mind better and better – but only as a marvelously equipped machine.  

What is missing would seem to be that faculty once called “intellectual intuition” – the power to see directly and immediately, without the intervention of words, truths which are timeless and fundamental.  That old intellect — for which the Greeks did have a word: NOUS — was inherentlyi drawn to beauty, which it deeply loved. 

I don’t see this as an exercise in nostalgia: there are ways open to us today by which we can recover this power, which is perhaps rather hidden than lost.  Other cultures have preserved it in ways we haven’t, and we have much to learn from them.  To a large extent it is our conception of “modern science” which denies the evidence of intuitive reason, and reduces the concept of “reason” to accurate symbolic calculation.  But there is another way within modern science, equally mathematical and rigorous, but founded in a concept of wholeness, and looking to the whole rather than the parts as the ground of “explanation”.  I have spoken about this way – the “Pinciple of Least Action” — in my lecture, “The Dialectical Laboratory”, elsewhere on this website.   


Nothing prevents, I believe, our mending this split between that classic concept of intuitive reason, seated in the world and knowing and loving truth directly — and the concept current today of reason as a calculative engine making what it can of an “outside” world.   We need only retrace our steps and pick up that thread of truth wherever we dropped it.  Not easy to do, of course, but worth every effort!


Any suggestions as to how to begin? 






In Praise of Generalized Coordinates

I’ve been expressing my enthusiasm for a holistic approach to the understanding of nature — in relation to my favorite topic, the electromagnetic field, this takes the form of the Lagrangian equations for the field as a single, connected system characterized by its energy, not by forces.  It was crucial to Maxwell’s development of the equations of the field in his “Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism” that they be formulated as instances of such a connected system — i.e., in Lagrangian terms, and NOT on the basis of Newton’s laws of motion.  (The difference — very fundamental to our understanding of nature — is developed in “The Dialectical Laboratory”, in my “Lectures” menu.) Now, the question arises: “If we start in this way, from the ‘top down’, how do we ever arrive at the elements?”   The answer is, “We DON’T!” We move logically “downward” by finding the dependence of the energy of the whole system upon ANY set of measurements we want to make — provided only that it’s a complete (i.e. sufficient to determine the state of the system), with each measure “independent” of the others. We find such a set of measurements by doing experiments — and when we get them, they are called “generalized coordinates”.  The important thing is that there may be many ways we can define them, each set as good as the others: and in the whole process we never get any”real,underlying elements” — we don’t need them!  Reality is founded at the top, not the bottom, of the chain of explanation.   This is Maxwell’s new view of physical reality, founded upon the field.  It is the opposite of the notion of “mechanical explanation”, and it is the direction which our approach to nature desperately needs to take as we approach the challenges which lie before us today.  In terms of the philosophy of science, Maxwell it seems was far ahead of his time.  I propose to call this the “Maxwellian Revolution”. 

Newton on the Field

I’ve just returned from a gathering in New Mexico, the first, pilot workshop of the Cosmic Serpent project, in which Native Americans and others-such as myself-gathered to compare Native American views of the natural world with those of “western science”. With the essential help of Jim Judson from the Sister Creek Center in San Antonio, I brought along an “open lab” on magnetism. It seemed to me that the concept of the “field”-specifically, here the (electro-) magnetic field-might prove helpful in relating these two domains of thought about nature.

For the moment, here, I just want to comment on a document that was circulating during the conference concerning the mystery of magnetism. Asking very simply “What is Magnetism?”, it was written by Bruno Maddox and published in a recent edition of Discover magazine. He reports that after exploring all options, he finds no scientific explanation of the cause  of magnetism.  If it remains a mystery, as he seems to conclude, then it may well be open to interpretation in terms compatible with Native American points of view.

That’s a point of view I’ll want to return to in future postings.  For the moment, I want to call attention to one of Maddox’s findings. He hit on a text in which Isaac Newton-looking in this case at the mystery of gravitation-opines that “the notion that one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum without the mediation of anything else…is to me so great an absurdity that I believe no man who has in philosophic matters a competent faculty of thinking could ever fall into it.”What did Newton have in mind?

I’m confident that he is not thinking in terms of any sort of mechanical explanation. Newton was not a mechanist: in fact, he wrote the Principia essentially as a polemic against mechanism, and in particular, against Descartes. No. His aim is to reveal the role of what he called Spirit in the world: the fact that the laws of these actions are mathematical in no way implies for Newton that they are mechanical, but is fully compatible with his concept of Spirit and its operation throughout the realm of nature.

I’m not arguing that Newton “had” the idea of the field-though his “intensive” quantity of a force seems to ascribe it to space itself, and is remarkably compatible with later ideas of the “field”. My point is only that as he describes the mathematical System of the World, Newton feels himself to be in the immediate presence of mystery-in his view, divine mystery in the form of the Holy Spirit as God’s agent in the natural world.

Newton’s thoughts along these lines, together with those on alchemy and theology, were systematically buried by his followers, and have been uncovered only in recent years. But now that we have a better sense of what he actually meant, we may be the more ready to contemplate this bridge between “spirit” as Newton intended it, and “spirit” in Indigenous accounts of the operations of the natural world. Either way, we are contemplating something which has all the feel of wonder and mystery.

While in Santa Fe, I learned that students at St. John’s College there would be gathering to witness this very mystery, in an experiment which Newton himself had thought would be impossible to carry out. Just as the Sun and Earth are joined by the gravitational force, so any two bodies on Earth must attract another by a very slight, yet calculable force. The experiment can in fact be done, with lead weights suspended by a delicate metal thread. To watch them, by way of a light beam and mirror, move toward one another slowly but surely, is to be present at a solemn ceremony at the foundation of the cosmos-as much a mystery, still today, as it ever was. I wonder if others agree with this reading of Newton’s text?