Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

An Odd (But Wildly Successful) Pre-C.P. Snow Attempt to Bridge "The Two Cultures"

In a monumental work in the sociology of knowledge, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, by Randall Collins, a key idea is this: in the history of philosophy, "There are two polar types of creativity: the creativity of fractionation as thinkers maximize their distinctiveness, and the creativity of synthesis as intellectuals make alliances among weakening positions or attempt to reduce a crippling overload as factions exceed the law of small numbers." (p.131)

This law of small numbers has to do with any period of intellectual history and a limited number of arguments that receive "attention space." If there is vibrant emotional energy spent around "knots" of ideas, other ideas find it difficult to gain traction. And these knots of ideas are small in number: from three to six. See the book for much more on the Law...

As Generalists, most - but not all - of us would fall towards the pole of "synthesizer." Collins says synthesizers, "are necessarily dedicated to a vision of an overarching truth, and display a generosity of spirit toward at least wide swaths of the intellectual community." (p.131) 

In the history of intellectual thought, fractionalizers and synthesizers are ideal types, but more common than a strong synthesizing is a weaker form: syncretism. With this in mind, I turn to Ezra Pound's early 20th century creative move to make poetry more "scientific" via his creative misreading of Chinese ideograms.

Pound's Imagism and his use of the ideogrammic method proved enormously influential in 20th century poetry, even if the initial impetus was based on mistaken (or "half-baked"?) ideas about how chinese writing worked, and how scientific methods proceeded. 

After announcing as a teenager that he would know more about poetry at age 30 than any man alive, Pound (around age 30) developed Imagism, which emphasized "direct treatment" of things, whether subjective or objective. He was also influenced by the scholastic idea that there is nothing truly in the understanding unless it was there in the senses first. 

Pound thought his ideogrammic way of seeing was both an art and a science, and was at odds with logic. As he saw it, in the material sciences of biology and chemistry, scientists "examined collections of fact, phenomena, specimens, and gathered general equations of real knowledge from them, even though the observed data had no syllogistic connection with one another." (Guide To Kulchur, p. 27)

He thought that scientists make their observations holistically and creatively, and that poetry ought to do this as well, and that chinese ideograms worked in a way that was isomorphic to scientific observation and thought.

To whatever extent Pound was "wrong" in his suppositions, he successfully carried out his revolution in poetry in the 20th century. And he did it by trying to synthesize the physical sciences with chinese writing! Given Pound's rather garish biography, does this constitute a time when Madness brilliantly showed its own methods?

1 comment:

Eric Wagner said...

Pound and Fenollosa's ideas about how Chinese works do not seem wrong or half baked to me. They both acknowledged that only about 20% of the Chinese language works pictorially. Interesting post.