The third method*

Amstelveen 27 May 2015

*Translated by Sebastiaan Kunst


There are broadly three ways of understanding the world. First of all, there is the method of picturing the world as one large and inspired whole, where everything is subject to heavenly powers defying our intellect. This is the archaic method. Secondly, there is the mathematical method of René Descartes, where everything is subject to analysis and number, and where calculation is dominant. Finally, and here we are entering relatively new and unexplored territory, there is the method of inspiring things by connecting the mathematical with imagination and narrative, analysis with synthesis, technology with public affairs. As regards the latter, namely the updated archaic method, there is work to be done. The dictate of amount and number is ubiquitous in our times. An overview for reflecting upon and summarising the human factor is losing more and more ground all the time. This is already a modest prelude to a method that will be able to do better justice to this human factor.

The mathematical method 

In his Discours de la méthode, René Descartes showed he was able to offer irrefutable truth to the modern era. If we mathematically explain and disassemble all that is conceivable and reduce it to the measurable and the numeric, then our thinking will become reliable, scientifically relevant and will best serve human wellbeing. Descartes’ Discours heralded an era in which the truth of number and measurability would be honoured above all. The ‘scientific revolution’ was imminent. For the first time, man and world were presented as a mechanical whole designed in a machine-like manner, for the greater benefit of both.

It was not entirely by coincidence that the drafting of the method of the future took place at the Amsterdam Keizersgracht (one of the main Amsterdam canals), at the foot of the Westertoren – the tower of the Westerkerk, a Dutch Protestant church in central Amsterdam. At that point in history, it was precisely here that a centre for the industry of calculation could be found – very much appreciated by Descartes himself. At the Westermarkt – the square on which the Westerkerk is situated – in the Amsterdam of the Dutch Golden Age, mathematics and Calvinistic capitalism were joined in a marriage that was to take the world by storm. And indeed, solemnly ushered in by the church bells of the Oude Wester (the nickname of the Westerkerk). It was there that progress was set in motion. It is by no means a coincidence that this event occurred in the town of my birth. Had I been born in The Hague or Belgrade, I would undoubtedly have been able to find enough reason to declare either city the cradle of the modern era. However, the starting signal for the experimental method, An essay concerning human understanding by adept of Cartesian thinking John Locke, was purportedly also written in Amsterdam, half a century after Descartes’ Discours. All in all, it would therefore indeed appear that the declaration of the irrevocable disenchantment of the modern era took place in my beloved Amsterdam.

Here are several quotations from Descartes’ Discours in which he places the analytical-mathematical mode of thinking centre stage. “I continually practised the method … deploying issues of mathematics or even any other problems that I could make almost equal to those of mathematics by detaching them from all principles of the other sciences, which I did not deem sufficiently associated.” The greatest certainty is achieved by thinking in terms of the outcome of a calculation, any calculation. (Therefore ergo …) Rather than a contemplative philosophy, Descartes writes, we should try to seek a practical one, by “deploying the workings of physics in the same way for all the purposes for which they are appropriate, thus making ourselves, as it were, lords and masters of nature. This serves … to invent an unlimited number of ploys enabling one to effortlessly enjoy the fruits of the earth and all its delights.” In due course, the mathematical method was to become the method whereby the manipulability of everything (and therefore also of everyone) was the leading idea.

And now on to the tragedy of the story without further delay. If Descartes, with his many, many religious and enlightened followers, had known that dividing knowledge into measurable segments never conjures up a whole, an organic overview, a harmony, a cohesion – not even if you additionally provide the unshakeable proof of the existence of God, as Descartes actually did – would he have changed his mind? If he had foreseen the helplessness of science in arriving at syntheses, with which existence, the world and nature remained overseeable, would he and his proponents have forged ahead in the same way? Would his enlightened followers with their unimaginably lofty ideals have surrendered themselves to their equally analytical and liberal experiments in quite the same way? Knowing, measuring and proving so much and, at the same time, leaving humanity in the lurch so dramatically when it comes to a view of the whole or the sense of existence. The heart of the present-day scientist and economist, however successful at unveiling the secrets of nature, both in their application and in their marketing, must be heavy from time to time.

But lo, wait a minute. While the human factor, amidst the resounding successes of progress, threatens to disappear from view, the red dawn of salvation is breaking again there too. My ‘updated archaic method’ announces itself. In this very brief presentation of it, I start by describing the archaic method, followed by the updated archaic method.

The archaic method

In the course of evolution, humans distinguished themselves from other life by single-handedly shaping their motivation for this life in a methodical way, by erecting a spiritual construction, a ‘heaven’ for themselves. This was a reference framework for existence in its entirety. Imagine a sunrise on an early spring morning. You are bathing in the light, in the delicate colours of young greenery and the first blossoms. Something inside you rejoices. Everything you are going to encounter that day will rejoice with you. Although different each time, because it is adjusted to each situation, this springtime stimulus that repeats itself in all eternity manifests itself when one is looking forward to something, when a creative spark lights up in the mind or when one is happy about life itself for no apparent reason. Call it joie de vivre (Émile Zola/Vincent van Gogh), élan vital (Henri Bergson), reproductive drive, infatuation, lust for life. Each organism, each cell takes part in it, from the cell division to the invention of the cart and the sonata. It is the still elusive principle that dominates all life. How we humans should deal with it exactly, is up to clergymen, philosophers and politicians. Here, I will analyse the human aspect in its evolutionary generality.

Unlike plants and animals, we people can, indeed even have to, seek appropriate sounds or behaviours for ourselves when we are marvelling, filled with this élan vital: like a flower that will not open, unless aided by a prosthesis. Birds, by nature, have an evolutionarily programmed pattern of singing, courtship, territorial and nesting behaviours with which they ritualise their life instincts. Besides the feeling of being overpowered by something grand and wanting to seek an expression for it, we people have none of this by nature. We compensated this lack by methodically and institutionally teaching ourselves expressions of gratefulness, wonder and infatuation, accompanied by song and dance (in the good old days). Compared to animals, élan vital in humans is only scantily pre-programmed. In the absence of nurturing with which we can shape our zest for life, in a culture, we are helpless and lonely.

The archaic method developed from this human need for cultivation of the life instinct. From the most primitive stages of their development, people have gathered the conceivable in their minds that are equipped to this end, have built themselves a firmament, a Heaven: where God and angels reside or gods convene and where, provided they are adequately escorted, the deceased go, and in which all the remaining conceivable matters find their ultimate explanation. This method uses instruments that are universally applicable, such as applications in language, including mythological and epic stories that furnish and design such a firmament, providing it with representations and names. Compared by researchers to archives in which (sometimes in an educational-exemplary manner when certain matters are mentioned, at other times fantasising in a decorous way about monsters, wizards and divine interventions, but always aided by rhyme that can be easily memorised, and the always monotonous rhythm of the verses) the culture of gathering is preserved and passed on. Existence occurs in stories that, as odes to the awesomeness of the universe, with its moon and galaxies and the daily miracle of the rising of the sun, are shared by everybody. There is not a single matter on earth that is not fully focused upon in such a ritualised story. Thus, everything enters into its alliance with heaven, and is able to acquire a place there. An intermediary is required for this, however. This is where the god, the spirit and the soul do their thing, as residents of all life, objects and matters. It is the priest who knows exactly how this works. There is absolutely nothing that evades this shared, ritual attention.

In the West, the archaic method has disappeared from view in public life. In pockets of society it is still possible to find matters displaying kinship with it, and which are not yet controlled by the mathematical method, such as art (isolating and declaring itself autonomous over the past two centuries) and religion (retreating from public life to churches and societies), all the human products that I otherwise see around me actually comply with said mathematical method. There is a place of honour for the computer, the ‘Cartesian box’ or ‘calculator of everything that is of value to us’. As an indispensable companion in everything we do, the computer has turned into a symbol of synthesis-free analysis.

Due to Christian agitation against gods, souls and spirits – which take up residence in things according to the archaic method – and the resulting “disenchantment” (Max Weber), the calculating mode of thinking started gaining momentum after the Reformation. In stark contrast with classical reverence for thoughtfulness, rulers of the past centuries have opted for quantity and manipulability. And mathematics and physics became standard models for all other sciences, thus placing on the agenda and widening the gap between both scientific areas: humanities and science. (According to Isaiah Berlin, this divide was described for the first time by Giambattista Vico.) Too little research has been conducted into the extent to which humanities took a beating over the past centuries. (I myself was given the opportunity to make an attempt by carrying out promotional research into critiques of humanities education from Antiquity to the Modern Period.) But I promise you, this is no small matter.

Human élan vital is under pressure. The spiritual ‘flower’ that is opening up towards heaven has trouble opening up towards the segment, the mathematically analysed, isolated part of the whole. With ever more difficulty, it finds its way towards a synthesis. Because of this void, the meaning of life starts to fade – most of all in countries where the mathematical method triumphs in everything. (In the modern West, for example, the production of offspring is no longer ritualised. The major life instinct to this end is placed in a socially controlled segment where it is calculated in the most progressive clinics where, when, by which donor and with which genes in the DNA the most beneficial fertilisation may occur.)

The updated archaic method

If a change of method is to be brought about, then a paradigm shift will be required, in the words of Thomas S. Kuhn. I have considered I could use the archaic method as a model and starting point, albeit in an updated, more cognitive set-up that is compatible with the mathematical. In this way, familiar matters and artefacts can subject themselves to this working method and not a single matter will be able to shun the overview of the whole.

The research on which I based my method comprised the following subjects: the cognitive value of the metaphor, the updating of epic poetry, the position of ‘the hero’ in our time, the inventor, the artist, ancestor worship in new guises, and last not least the study and practical application of all this within heritage and artistic education. As far as the latter is concerned, I had a ‘laboratory’ at my disposal in the form of a classroom of children who, courtesy of the stories about Charles Goodyear and Abraham Darby II, were no longer able to restrain their enthusiasm in relation to the invention of the vulcanisation of rubber and the smelting of iron ore using coke.

In this, for want of a better, rather reckless research programme, something essential was lacking until recently. It will only be possible to speak of an integral paradigm shift if the core of the existing model can be plotted against an alternative carrying the same weight. It was precisely this lacking element that I found not so long ago at the bottom of a drawer in which I keep texts from my youth. As a young man, following the example of Aristotle, I had taught myself the habit of presenting answers to self-formulated life questions in an axiomatic manner. As regards the question vis à vis my existence this resulted in: “I believe / My belief says I am / I believe I am / I am.” This is how I formulated the first part of my principle. The second part concerns the object of my belief: “Unity, infinity, perfection is / I am in unity, infinity, perfection.” I would regularly repeat similar principles to myself. This made sense of the world. Not the formulation as such, but the regular repetition. (This makes an essential difference compared to a calculation or a mathematical formula. Even though a formula such as E=mc2 is regularly ‘abused’ by the wish to account for something all-encompassing in a ritual way – not hindered by the absence of a clue as to its meaning – a mathematical formula mainly finds its significance in its application and its effectiveness, not in a ritual. The former involves control, the latter contemplation).

The word ‘perfection’ from my principle refers to my belief in the physical fate suffered by all things by being subject to the laws of nature. In other words, determinism: the inevitability of everything, encompassing the infinitely great, the small and the timeless. And both in terms of the most insignificant and the most horrendous for us humans. What seems imperfect is only so according to this belief (now no longer actively practised by me) because we humans are unable to see the event in the totality of all the forces impacting it. I hereby imagined that the feeling of being included in the unity, experiencing a sort of mystique, may lead to insights, also or precisely in relation to the apparently imperfect. (The sources for my ‘mystique’ are obscure. Plato’s Phaidros? The Stoics? Voltaire’s Candide and Hermann Hesse’s Siddharta I did not read until later).

My ‘I believe therefore I am’ seems to be rooted in Descartes’ principle ‘I think therefore I am’. But this was not the case. At the time, I was inspired by Greek philosophers and writers of tragedy. They, in turn, left me in the lurch where my ideas on cohesion were concerned. I did not have a great deal of affinity with a heaven of the gods, nor with an immortal soul. Nevertheless, I now take advantage of this principle as a substitute for the still seemingly untouchable Cartesian principle.

Even people who do not believe in gods or souls dwelling in things (as is actually still the case in modern-day Japan where, for example, an anthropomorphic robot is carried to the grave with a Shinto ritual after the soul has been removed from it), still have ‘belief’ at their disposal. It is in the form of imagination, the narrative and the awe for what this primal ecstasy of the élan vital rouses in us, but then in an updated manner. I hereby use Aristotle’s archaic method as a starting point on which to continue to build the updated archaic method, just as he managed to inspire me in my youth. As the “inventor of science” (according to the biologist Armand Marie Leroi in his The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science), Aristotle had lent analytical as well as experimental skills to the European mode of thinking. However, he subjected the mathematical and the numerical entirely in accordance with his archaic method, to an extensive metaphysical contemplation, meditating on concepts such as unity versus multiplicity, types of unity, types of multiplicities and collections, never systematically elaborating on the numerical as a mathematical object in itself, independently of the phenomena. He actually explicitly protests against this. “The things around us are one through life or a part thereof, or through something else that is self-evident; if this were not the case, they would be multiplicities and fall apart. But if these things are shared and quantities, then what causes them to be one and stay together?” (Metaphysics, book M 1077a23). According to Henri Oosthout, editor of this text, in Aristotle’s view, mathematical objects threaten “to turn to dust as lifeless carcasses”. In the Amsterdam of the Dutch Golden Age, people had fewer qualms about this. It was not metaphysics and quality that were the norm there for the knowledge of physics and economy, but their quantity which was disconnected from their synthesis and thus applicable in everything.

Aristotle, the most influential teacher of analysis as well as synthesis known in the West, verbalised the archaic-contemplative, and thus also my principle ‘I believe therefore I am’ in pithy words. Once again, in his Metaphysics (1072b). He considered gods to be valuable entities of a tradition, in the sense he himself gave them of ‘first and immovable movers’. He subsequently argues that in thinking which, in short, merges with the object of this thinking, the deed of reflection on the divine is the most pleasant and the best, and that you thus contemplate life as the divine. In this case, “the relevance of this thinking is life and God at the same time, and therefore the best and the eternal.”

How is this peripatetic “relevance of thinking”, contemplating life as the divine to be translated to the now? This “sense of the pleasantest and best” – how can we transpose this to the modern era? The method is as follows. We construct and narrate the story of the origin of things, all things. Their origin in nature, evolution, defying imagination in the search for the depiction of the riddle of life, as well as the miracle of their invention, the divine spark of genius. The shift in the social self-image and the adjustments in the system will have to be impressive. In line with the archaic method, literature, philosophy, history, in other words the humanities, will have some catching up to do in the updated archaic method in order to compete with beta, as in the archaic system, and to be able to move forward together again. Maintaining one another’s balance and correcting one another where necessary. The gap between humanities and science is painfully palpable on all fronts in society.

If, on the basis of this updated archaic method, the story of the origin, the ‘myth’ of the computer has also been created at some point, and has acquired a place in our heads through our education, even this crown jewel of calculating thinking will be occupied by a ‘soul’. With the help of – belief in – historicising imagination, any invention, any innovation, any product can become ‘inspired’ and thus present itself to the visible, the intelligible which is accessible to everyone. The spiritual firmament may be erected and lined with great names, ideas and events. As with the World Wide Web, but in this case in the spirit of those who form part of the same society. With a view to finding the social cohesion of things in a poetic reworking of history. Finally, matters will no longer exclusively derive their right to exist from their measurability, but rather from their integration into an idiom of general education. It is not until every matter has gained back its ‘soul’ in the form of a story of origin, that the existing gap between public affairs and technology, tradition and progress, the West and the rest can be bridged.