Clarifying and enlarging

An abiding suspicion of spurious clarity is a key feature of the alternative tradition. If we have cited the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus on behalf of the analytical tradition and its obsession with clarity, we can now invoke the later Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations against it. He brings out the heuristic value of concepts that are admittedly vague, defends inexactness as more helpful than great exactitude for some tasks and challenges the common assumption that '"inexact" is really a reproach, and "exact" is praise' (Wittgenstein, 1968, pp.41f.).

Polanyi also has attacked the Cartesian legacy of obsession with precision. In the social and human sciences, where interpretation is the dominant method, the personal factor is crucial. For all the objective disciplines that we may employ, our conclusions are ultimately grounded in personal insight into the actions and motivations of persons. At the same time, these disciplines are rich in factual content. When we move along the scale of increased formalism, however, from the exact to the deductive sciences, the personal factor diminishes steadily and so too does the informativeness of scientific statements until we reach the level of broad abstractions or laws. From (say) history at one end of the spectrum to (say) pure mathematics at the other, it is a sequence of increasing formalisation and symbolic manipulation, combined with decreasing contact with experience. Higher degrees of formalisation make the statements of science more precise, its inferences more impersonal and correspondingly more 'reversible'; but every step towards this ideal is achieved by a progressive sacrifice of content.

Whitehead argued that in our exploration of reality we should resist the temptation to seek for smaller and smaller units of meaning, and for ideas which are ever more clear and distinct. Instead we should look outwards, exploring the further reaches of connection, reference and context. Whitehead insists that for every statement we make 'there is always a background of presupposition which defies analysis by reason of its infinitude' (Whitehead, 1941, p.699). Our ideas are therefore 'ignorantly entertained' since we are oblivious to the 'infinitude of circumstances' to which they are relevant. Philosophical method is then, according to Whitehead, 'a resolute attempt to enlarge the understanding of the scope of application of every notion which enters into our current thought' (Whitehead, 1938a, pp.233f.). Whitehead points out that we do our thinking 'under the guise of doctrines which are incompletely harmonised. We cannot think in terms of an infinite multiplicity of detail', so we marshal particulars under general ideas with all their haziness and crudity. Except for the simpler notions of arithmetic, even our familiar ideas, which we accept at face value, are infected with an incurable vagueness. These ideas subsist in symbolic form, 'metaphors mutely appealing for an imaginative leap' (Whitehead, 1938b, p.217).

Baron Von Hügel, giving principles of theological discipline to a correspondent, writes: 'Pray get this point quite definite and firm,—that to require clearness in proportion to the concreteness, to the depth of reality, of the subject-matter is an impossible position,—I mean a thoroughly unreasonable, a self-contradictory habit of mind.' This is necessarily so, Von Hügel goes on, because only abstract ideas and numerical and spatial relations are perfectly clear, undeniable and readily communicable. And they are thus because they do not directly involve any assertion of real particular existences. As soon as we assert specific facts, Von Hügel seems to be saying, everything becomes contestable (Von Hügel, 1921, p.100).

Turning from these modern allies to historical figures: Vico knew that, in the realm of historical research and reconstruction, Descartes' criteria of clarity and distinctness were counterproductive. We are enabled to grasp the nature of primitive societies, not because we see their elements laid out clearly and distinctly, but only by a strenuous effort of empathy and imagination, by which through the mists of time we intuit obscurely what their life was like. But this insight is only just possible for it is 'beyond our power to enter into the vast imagination of those first men whose minds were not in the least abstract, refined or spiritualized, because they were entirely immersed in the senses, buffeted by the passions, buried in the body' (Vico, 1961, p.118, para. 378).

Burke pointed out the limitations of clarity in his treatise on The Sublime and the Beautiful, observing: 'It is one thing to make an idea clear, and another to make it affecting. In reality, a great clearness helps but little towards affecting the passions' (Burke, 1834, p.39). In other words, clarity is irrelevant to experiencing the sublime—above all in the hearing of scripture. Obscurity mixed with terror are the elements of the sublime. Besides biblical examples, Burke points to Milton's description of Death in Paradise Lost, Book II: 'In this description all is dark, uncertain, confused, terrible, and sublime in the last degree' (ibid., p.38). He did not have available to him then Blake's 'The Tyger'—an extraordinary evocation of sublimity.

Burke claims that poetic images are inherently obscure and where they invoke boundlessness extremely obscure: 'The ideas of eternity and infinity, are among the most affecting we have: and yet perhaps there is nothing of which we really understand so little, as of infinity and eternity' (ibid., p.39). Burke suggests that infinity fills us with 'that sort of delightful horrour [sic], which is the most genuine effect and truest test of the sublime' (Burke, 1834, p.43). He could have instanced Pascal's 'the eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread' (Pascal, 1966, p.95).

Blake evokes infinity and eternity with wonder rather than with fear (perhaps because he finds them in the microcosm rather than the macrocosm) in the opening Unes of 'Auguries of Innocence', which have the structure of biblical parallelism:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.

A theology that set its sights on clarity and distinctness would be hard pressed to make sense of infinity and eternity as attributes of God! Burke administers the coup de grâce to misplaced clarity and distinctness with the comment:

Hardly anything can strike the mind with its greatness, which does not make some sort of approach towards infinity; which nothing can do while we are able to perceive its bounds; but to see an object distinctly, and to perceive its bounds, is one and the same thing. A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea.

Newman warns against the deceptions of clarity when he remarks that the vividness of an image is no indication of truth: 'The fact of the distinctiveness of the images, which is required for real [as opposed to notional] assent, is no warrant for the existence of the objects which those images represent.' Newman explicitly takes issue with Descartes' method when he insists that strength of mental impression is no guide to reality (Newman, 1903, p.80).

Coleridge mused 'whether too great definiteness of terms in any language may not consume too much of the vital and idea-creating force in distinct, clear, full-made images, and so prevent originality' (Coleridge, 1895, p. 19). He opposed to the method of ever-smaller refinements of definition, the method of exploring grand, pregnant, luminous generalities—'Ideas'. In The Statesman's Manual (1816), Coleridge proclaimed: 'Every idea is living, productive, partaketh of infinity and (as Bacon has sublimely observed) containeth an endless power of semination.' Ideas galvanise the mind into activity:

At the enunciation of principles, of ideas, the soul of man awakes, and starts up, as an exile in a far distant land at the unexpected sounds of his native language, when after long years of absence, and almost of oblivion, he is suddenly addressed in his mother tongue. He weeps for joy and embraces the speaker as his brother.

'An IDEA, that most glorious birth of the God-like within us,' he enthuses (ibid., p.50).

In his work on Church and state, Coleridge defines an idea Ideologically, by reference to its 'ultimate aim' (Coleridge, 1976, p.12). Ideas are the prerogative of the Reason for their attribute is universality, while the Understanding deals in mere 'conceptions' which are simply categories of particulars (ibid., pp.13, 58). Ideas emerge in the form of symbols, which contain contraries and these can only be reconciled at the level of the Reason; for the Understanding they are sheer contradictions. In Aids to Reflection, Coleridge cryptically remarks: 'A symbol is a sign included in the Idea, which it represents' (Coleridge, 1993, p.263 n.).

A substantial notebook entry expands on what Coleridge meant by Idea. Ideas mediate between finite and infinite, particular and universal, the absolute and the qualified. Ideas have not only a metaphysical but a theological basis: 'The Trinity is indeed the primary Idea, out of which all other ideas are evolved—or as the Apostle says, it is the Mystery (which is but another word for Idea) in which are hid all the Treasures of Knowledge.' An Idea is inherently inconceivable. The Understanding 'reflects and refracts' the Ideas of the Reason in two contradictory positions (Coleridge, 1990, vol. 4, no. 5,294).

Coleridge leaves open, at least in his earlier work, the question whether Ideas are the true representation of reality or simply a helpful clue. 'Whether Ideas are regulative only, according to Aristotle and Kant; or likewise CONSTITUTIVE, and one with the power and Life of Nature, according to Plato and the highest problem of Philosophy' (Coleridge, 1972, p.114).

George Tyrrell brought out the continuity in the 'common tradition' between Coleridge and Newman in their use of 'Idea'. Recalling that in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (Newman, 1974), Newman had spoken about the development of the 'idea' of Christianity, Tyrrell observed that this had misled those for whom 'ideas' in theology mean 'intellectual concepts, universals, definitions, from which a doctrinal system could be deduced syllogistically'. Tyrrell pointed out that Newman had meant 'a spiritual force or impetus'—which was, of course, how Tyrrell himself, the so-called 'modernist', understood Christianity (Tyrrell, 1910, pp.29-33).

There is no need for us to try to swallow Coleridge neat. I am not going to attempt to defend Coleridge's Ideas as tantamount to Platonic Forms. But there is no denying that such luminous general ideas as Unity, Freedom, Immortality, Transcendence, Grace, Truth, Goodness, Beauty, Justice, Providence, Love and Creativity have the power to arouse the human spirit both to intellectual achievement and to outstanding actions. We do not need to deny that they have their ultimate source in the mind and being of God— indeed it is vital to theism to affirm that—but it is sufficient to say that they acquire their aura of transcendence and their power of motivation from the fact that they have been invoked in the aspirations of generation after generation. They lend themselves to our indwelling because they have been preached, prayed, intoned, sung, debated, written and read, lived for and died for by an innumerable company of our brothers and sisters who have walked the earth before us. The power, though not the reality and validity (we are talking about the ordo cognoscendi rather than the ordo essendi), of these ideas can be accounted for sociologically, as Wittgensteinian 'forms of life', rather than theologically, as Platonic Forms. The common tradition is a convivial tradition!

Part II

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