Truth, Meaning, and the Evolution of Consciousness

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* Book: The Redemption of Thinking: A Study in Truth, Meaning, and the Evolution of Consciousness, 2020. Max Leyf. Theoria Press, 2020



"Truth and meaning: what is their relation? Shall ever the twain be one? This dissertation attempts to show how the ascendancy of a particular method of inquiry since the seventeenth century has forfeit meaning in the pursuit of truth. At the same time, the insights into meaning that postmodern philosophy has conferred have been won through the sacrifice of truth. Drawing on the work of J. W. von Goethe (1749–1832), Owen Barfield (1898–1997), and Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), the following is my attempt to reconcile this disjunction between truth and meaning that has come to characterize the present age. Specifically, I hope to show that Goethe’s way of knowledge, as perfected by Steiner and as contextualized in the evolution of consciousness by Barfield, manages to integrate the two poles indicated above without sacrificing the objectivity of the former or the subjectivity of the latter."


Max Leyf, interviewed by Tim Nadelle:

* "I never referenced the page but I recall you mentioning in the book that developments in scientific thought over the last centuries created the thought environment which made postmodernism possible. The picture I have is patricide. Can you expand on this? 

ML: Yes, well the moment you allow abstract models to replace actual phenomena as the objects of truth, it can be seen that a great number of different theories can be advanced without any bona fide epistemological means of adjudicating between them. Instead, the supremacy of one theory over another is decided not by its truth but by cultural forces and that already sounds a lot like postmodernism. The patricide is an interesting phenomenon in the emergence of the scientific paradigm since in a certain way, the early moderns, especially Bacon and Descartes and Galileo, specifically set about to reject Aristotle. Bacon even called his seminal text the Novum Organum. Bacon is an interesting and paradoxical case. On the one hand he is hailed as the father of the scientific method and a champion of modern science over the fusty dogmas of “the Schoolmen” and “the Philosophers.” But at the same time, he is obviously advocating an attentiveness to phenomena and a campaign to exorcise the “idols of the mind” that distort our perception of them. And this endeavour was not taken up again so heartily until Goethe hundreds of years later. I actually excised a section I had written comparing Galileo and Bacon to Romulus and Remus. What the brothers were to Rome, the thinkers were the modern science. The fratricide as well as the patricide is an interesting element of founding mythology and in a certain way, it is recapitulated in modern science because the direct empiricism that Bacon advocates is betrayed through recourse abstractions and quantitative models before it can propagate itself. 

* How would you characterize the key difference between a Newtonian and Goethean approach to scientific inquiry? 

Three things: calculability versus insight; models versus experience; reductionism versus metamorphosis. I am reminded of a quote by Cassirer: “The mathematical formula strives to make the phenomena calculable, that of Goethe to make them visible.”

* You seemed to muse at one point over whether a firm choice between Newtonian and Goethean approaches is necessary. What’s your view?

Could the two perspectives be harmonized.  Yes, I don’t see any reason why they should not be harmonized as long as each is regarded for what it is. Newton’s approach is to transduce phenomena into mathematical models. This allows for a technological mastery of them. Goethe’s approach is to seek to understand the phenomena on their own terms. This allows for insight and self-knowledge. Barfield once likened this to the difference between knowing how to drive a car and knowing what a car is and how it functions. Hence, the Newtonian method fosters a sort of “dashboard knowledge” whose function is utility but not insight."


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