The weird and the naïve

In a post I wrote entirely too long ago (sorry), I imagined a new scholarly subfield called “Weird Studies,” which would presumably do for weirdos what Queer Studies has done for queer sexuality: formalize and fortify a marginal social identity by giving it academic sanction. A guy lurking around the local occult bookstore is just some weirdo; a guy publishing a 10000-word peer-reviewed essay titled “Tentacles, Pentacles, and Testicles: Weird Masculinities in Contemporary Occult Publishing” is professionally, capital-W Weird.

But of course there is something off-putting about the notion of institutionalized Weird: H. P. Lovecraft didn’t have tenure. So, having begun my last post by announcing the birth of Weird Studies, I ended it by announcing its death — a death that lacks only the formality of having happened.

All the same, I’m going to take this thought-experiment just a little further.

The question I asked last time was, what would it take for Weird Studies to become a real academic subdiscipline? I suggested that it would have to overcome a certain generic inertia, but here I would like to suggest that it would also have to overcome the modern academic’s naïve construal of reality.

Using my occult powers, I can hear the affronted inner monologues of my academic readers. Naïve? Moi? I’ve spend decades and a small fortune in student loans to learn how to see through every naïve assumption that humans beings can make! I now see every worldview as a mere artifact of culture and history

Let me ask you a question, then: what if I were to claim in all seriousness that I can use occult powers to hear your inner thoughts? Obviously, I’m kidding around here, but what if I weren’t? That would be weird, right? Imagining that you can hear other people’s thoughts is the sort of thing that paranoids and deluded New Agers believe. Even if you yourself have had so-called paranormal experiences*, you would think twice about saying so in an academic publication. You wouldn’t want to come off as naïve, or worse. But if the worldview in which telepathy makes sense is naïve, what about the worldview that says it is naïve? If you’re the sort of person who believes that all worldviews are a product of historical, social, and cultural contingencies (and if you’re in a postmodern academic humanist, you probably are) then do you exempt your own worldview from this sweeping claim? Wouldn’t that be naïve?

Much as we might like to think otherwise, our own worldview clearly has its own characteristic and largely unspoken assumptions, and one of them is, the contents of mind cannot be communicated outside of material channels. You can tell me that you object to me calling you naïve; you can write me an angry email; you can flip me the bird. But I can’t just stare into your eyes and know what you’re thinking.

holy moment

We know this not a universal belief. We can understand that people have seen things differently at other times and places. But we cannot see with their eyes, and past a certain point we don’t try. Scholars know that the ancient Romans respected the power of dreams to foretell important events, for instance, but they understand this as an interesting thing that people used to believe; they don’t treat it as a viewpoint available to themselves. (This is historicism in a nutshell.) A scholar might tell you how the Romans examined the entrails of sheep for omens of the future, but s/he will probably not argue that they would have gotten better results by examining burned turtle shells. The Roman worldview is bracketed off and treated as just another way of looking at things. Scholars converse with their (virtual, historical) interlocutors the way they would talk to a homeless person who’s yelling at trees: listening and nodding politely to whatever he’s saying and then walking away thinking “that guy is fucking crazy.”

Postmodern academic humanists like to say that our own viewpoint is yet another way of looking at things, no better or worse than any other. But we don’t really believe this, any more than we think the guy yelling at trees makes some good points. Even if we decide that all points of view are relative, we mean that all points of view are relative to our own, which we tacitly hold to be absolute. The term “naïve construal” refers to those beliefs we hold so unselfconsciously that we simply cannot think of them as just another way of looking at things. When I say that the modern academic has a naïve construal of reality, I don’t mean it’s particularly naïve; it’s just that all human beings have naïve construals, and we moderns are no different, even if we think we are.

In his epic philosophical history A Secular Age, Charles Taylor writes that such a construal does not even rise to the level of an explicit theory — say, a Cartesian theory of mind and matter. Rather, it is “our contemporary lived understanding; that is, the way we naïvely take things to be. We might say: the construal we just live in, without ever being aware of it as a construal, or — for most of us — without ever even formulating it.” [Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 30.]

Taylor is here trying to explain the difference between our own construal and that of an “enchanted” age — between what Max Weber called the rational “disenchantment” (entzauberung) of modernity, on the one hand, and on the other the Medieval Christian world, in which human beings find themselves vulnerable to the influence of demons, angels, saints, curses, healing miracles, and a host of unseen powers. Much of Taylor’s work in A Secular Age is to fashion a narrative by which the West** moved from enchantment to disenchantment. Now, the usual narrative of how that happened is what Taylor calls a “subtraction narrative,” in which disenchantment pertains to a true understanding of the world while enchantment is something extra added in: subtract this gratuitous enchantment and the truth at last shines forth unimpeded. Taylor sets about showing how this story is itself a pious and stacked-deck fiction. Our default perspective of scientific naturalism is unique in human history and could never have occurred to us without some specific adjustments within Christian doctrine.

I can’t possibly do justice to the full complexity of Taylor’s argument — A Secular Age is almost 800 very dense pages long — but here is one very simplified and abridged version of one aspect of it:

Christian theologians have always been at pains to make God as singular, unbounded, unchallenged, and total an entity as possible. Consequently, at a certain point they reject the notion that natural laws (in Aristotelian term, the essences of things) manifest God’s actions, because that would suggest that God’s power is limited by His creation. (If it is the nature of water to be wet, and water is wet because God made it so, then He couldn’t also make it dry and crunchy.) Nominalist theologians including William of Ockham (he of the famous razor) thus denied that things have intrinsic essences or meanings; there are only things in themselves and the names or concepts*** we humans apply to them. In this way, God becomes ever more loftily absolute, abstract, remote, and untouched — a principle rather than an entity.**** He’s still in the cosmological picture: he’s the principle that makes meaning possible; but he’s not the author of the particular meanings that appear in our sublunary world. We’re on our own here. God is evacuated from the world here-and-now, and with that, we come a step closer to the Deist God-as-watchmaker, or for that matter the Deus Absconditus who was once in the world but is now hiding out, like a deadbeat Dad who went out to buy a pack of smokes one day and never came back. Once we have moved God this far to the side, it makes little practical difference if we omit him entirely from the picture. It is only a short step from a Deist, who imagines a clockmaker-God winding up His creation and letting it run on its own, to a scientific naturalist, who imagines only the clock.

Think of it this way. When you’re young, you have a transformative musical experience — you hear a great work of music, like a Bach passion, and you are swept away by its power. You think, this is a work of genius; its power and greatness is intrinsic to what it is; it has the same power and greatness now as it did when it was composed, and it will be as great and powerful in a year, or 100 years, or 10000 years; it is as great here in the United States as it was in Leipzig and it would be just as great on Alpha Centauri; the genius that went into it makes it essentially different from other pieces of music. Then you go to college and are taught genius is not in the music, but something certain people at certain times have attributed to the music, for various reasons that seemed important at the time; in other words, you come to see that genius is historically and culturally contingent, whereas formerly you thought it was unchanging and universal. In short, what we took for a work of genius is merely a “work of genius.” I have written at length about the difference those scare quotes make, and here I would simply suggest that the difference between the un-scare-quoted work of genius and the “work of genius” is the difference between an idea of music as having an essential meaning and the nominalist idea that such qualities as genius, power, and greatness are simply conventional words or concepts we attach to things.

The academic habit of bracketing everything with scare quotes and reducing meaning to the mere exchange of conventional signs among human actors is supposed to be a postmodern thing, but Taylor argues that its roots are in Medieval theology — the very roots of the modern, it turns out. The difference is that the Medieval nominalists did not take God out of the picture; they simply moved him very far away. They did this to protect Him, but they unwittingly set in motion a chain of historical events that have led to us, their philosophical heirs, simply assuming that God is not a part of the picture, and never was.

That last innovation is what leads us ineluctably towards the subtraction narrative, which is the warrant for our own naïve construal. We believe in a world evacuated of spiritual agency — even, oddly, if we still believe in God — and this absence is a capital-T Truth, something that is and was always true, just waiting for us to unveil it. However, what seems to us an eternal and universal Truth turns out to be just as contingent and historically-determined as anyone else’s worldview. There’s a story behind how we came to think what we think. (The whole point of A Secular Age is to tell it.)

Once we can see our own construal of reality as just that, a construal, we can start asking what its features are. Taylor addresses this early in A Secular Age by contrasting enchantment with disenchantment:

Let me start with the enchanted world, the world of spirits, demons, moral forces which our predecessors acknowledged. The process of disenchantment is the disappearance of this world, and the substitution of what we live today: a world in which the only locus of thoughts, feelings, spiritual élan is what we call minds; the only minds in the cosmos are those of humans (gross modo, with apologies to possible Martians or extra-terrestrials); and minds are bounded, so that these thoughts, feelings etc. are situated “within” them. [Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 29-30.]

Now, recall where this post started, with my suggestion that it would come off a bit weird if I were to express a straightforward belief in telepathy. We can now see a bit better what’s weird about it: telepathy violates rule no. 3, that minds are bounded. Well, it’s not a “rule,” exactly, but rather an aspect of Taylor’s “construal we just live in, without ever being aware of it as a construal, or — for most of us — without ever even formulating it.” It’s just how you’re supposed to think.

What is weird is precisely what lies outside this unspoken set of assumptions. “Weird Studies” would be academic work consciously conducted outside the naïve construal of modernity. I wrote at the beginning that a hypothetical Weird Studies would have to overcome this construal, but it would be just as true to say that it would be constituted by it as well — its negative image, like the death-mask that takes the imprint of a face.

Next time: more weirdness!

*For example, a precognitive dream such as Mark Twain had of his brother’s death. Jeffrey Kripal has taken to calling such experiences “super natural” — no hyphen, just a space. See his most recent book, The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained,  a collaboration with Whitley Strieber that offers a toolkit for busting out of the modern’s naïve construal.

**One of the questions that comes up when thinkers try to analyze or explain the beliefs and assumptions of we moderns is, who is this “we”? Calling it “the West” gestures at a certain historical reality, but it is still very imprecise. It is after all quite possible for people in the West to believe in telepathy: many modern people have had the experience of knowing things through seemingly inexplicable means. And “modernity” is a notoriously roomy conceptual basket: you can put a lot of stuff in there, a lot of people and cultural artifacts and social phenomena, and its contents are correspondingly so varied they lack any single defining characteristic. So Haiti plays its part in modernity, but the widespread practice of Haitian Vodou rests upon assumptions and beliefs that run counter to the “naïve construal” of modernity I describe here. For that matter, the widespread American belief in angels does as well.

So I am mostly interested in discussing the worldview of those intellectual and cultural elites that set the tone of discussion, and the way the discussions they set are shaped by default assumptions of modernity. Sure, a lot of Americans believe in angels. For all I know, Pamela Paul believes in angels. But as the editor of The New York Times Book Review, Paul is not going to run a bunch of stories on books about angels, unless it’s some “religion in America” special issue, in which case the tenor of the reviews will be one of anthropological curiosity or “what this tells us about America today.” The NYTBR isn’t going to tell us anything about angels as such, like how they talk to people or what their powers are; it’ll tell us about what people think about angels. In other words, the default mode of the NYTBR and similar tone-setting flagship organs of modern thought and opinion is historicist irony.

What I mean to say is, there is a difference between what individuals in a given society believe — a wide spectrum indeed — and what beliefs are represented in those spheres that represent the consensus of a given culture. As Taylor points out in A Secular Age, early Medieval Christians blended church doctrines with holdover pagan beliefs; it was quite possible for an English peasant to pray to the Christian god every Sunday but make offerings to Freyr for a good harvest. But for the most part one looks in vain for any record of paganism in official documents. The proverbial researcher from Mars, looking for signs of belief in telepathy or angels among 21st century American humanities professors would have a hard time finding any direct textual evidence of it, at least in academic publications. But of course our own lived reality is far messier.

***Yes, names and concepts aren’t the same thing, and yes, I’m glossing over a lot of detail.

****In such a way of thinking, there is no room for magic, because magic is a kind of spiritual agency in the world, and if God’s hand has been withdrawn from our affairs, then whose hand is left to move in mysterious ways, its wonders to perform? There can be no miraculous cures or visitations of incorporeal spirits, because that domain of power belongs to God alone, and He’s not here. Christians have always said that magic is wicked sacrilege, but now they start saying there’s no such thing. Sometimes, confusingly, they say both.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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4 Responses to The weird and the naïve

  1. Elizabeth R. Upton says:

    I haven’t read Taylor’s book, so I don’t know to what extent he’s doing this, but watch out for unreflective othering of the Middle Ages. Othering is baked into the very concept of a “middle age” between whatever you value and its rebirth in a later era. About 800 years of European history is labelled “medieval,” and it cannot have been the same from throughout that whole span of time and space. Medieval people knew about metaphors! Medieval Christianity was actually different than post-Reformation Christianity and is not the same as modern Catholicism! Medievalism (the study, and creative use, of medieval material in post-medieval eras) is a thing, and we medievalists have begun to discuss it. Let me know if you want readings, for music or in general.

  2. JDJPlocher says:

    Always happy to read new posts, and your investigations and reflections on the weird have been particularly, delightfully thought-provoking.

  3. philphord says:

    Hi JDJP — Thanks!

    Hi Elizabeth — Thanks for your comment. Taylor does make distinctions between different phases of the 1000-year swathe of “the Middle Ages,” and in at least one place I should have signposted which bit is relevant to a particular part of my argument. Still, this doesn’t really touch the charge of “Othering” the Medieval mind, which I will address in another blog post.

  4. philphord says:

    BTW, I forgot to say, thanks, Elizabeth, for the offer of reading suggestions on the question of the “Medieval mind” and the various cultural uses to which the notion has been put. I would very much like any suggestions you might have.

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