Continuing the procession, a study in patterns

April 4, 2013 § 2 Comments


Funeral procession fresco (reconstructed by E. Gilliron)


This image is comprised of two material values: the remains of a fresco uncovered in the Palace of Minos in Knossos & a sketch which completes the depiction. Although traditionally referred to as “reconstruction”, this is a misleading name for there is neither memory nor a superior knowledge in the work. The process is in fact one of instinct & assumption, as influenced by identifying patterns (both inherent to the image — here the repetition of the youths with the lekythoi, the patterns of the fabric, the distance between them, &c — & as found in surrounding samples or in established tradition).

Pattern is the only means by which logic will judge, regardless of the onlooker, the reconstruction satisfactory. A confidence is placed upon the unknown which assures us, almost without doubt, that there isn’t any chance that the obscured fresco segments have a place for depictions of an octopus or a tree.* [This reconstruction even suggests at the freedom of interpretation by having the right vase deviate in style from the first two.] Although uncertainty necessarily remains, we can continue with the assumption of a satisfactory & complete construction. It works.

What we have of the information of the world is limited, a small fragment with apparently worn edges which imply a greater body, absolutely unattainable to us. We can do nothing more but trace the lines to their logical ends, but a degree of imagination is inescapable for any notion of something bigger.


One of the deepest of human desires is to find a unitary pattern in which the whole of experience, past present & future, actual, possible & unfulfilled, is symmetrically ordered. It is often expressed by saying that once upon a time there was a harmonious unity [&] that this was somehow broken; & that the whole of human experience has consisted in an endless effort to reassemble the fragments, to restore the unity, & so to escape or ‘transcend’ categories — ways of thinking — which split & isolate & ‘kill’ the living reality, & ‘dirempt’ us from it. (69)

On May 12, 1953, Isaiah Berlin opened the Auguste Comte Memorial Trust Lectures with a treatise on historical inevitability. It is a response to the application of scientific rationalism to foreign studies which results from the keen desire for objectivity in all fields of research.

The methodology of the natural sciences appeals for its simplicity &, presumed, guarantee of accuracy. Being based on empirical data alone, there is an implication of impartiality when working with ‘hard’ facts (70); they are assumed to be unsusceptible to reshaping or misinterpreting. Berlin’s concern is with attempts at explaining all things in this way, “to think that there exists the pattern, the basic rhythm of history — something which both creates & justifies all that there is — that is to take the game far too seriously, to see in it a key to reality” (16).

& the end of this game taken seriously? It is to believe that all things have a deducible form & to accept “a membership in an ordered system, each with a unique position, sacred to him alone” (39). The sole condition of beginning in the pursuit of knowledge is a promise of truth. We describe truth by ordering empirical data into kingdoms & sciences with the assumption that everything can be found to have a place. Once humanity is applied to the system, its free will is forfeited in a stroke; there can no longer be questions of ethics, only degrees of ignorance.

With enough, & the right, knowledge, all can be made excusable: if it can be accounted for perfectly, it occupies the space of necessity (for it cannot be other than it is) & cannot be held responsible for its own self. The imagined end of knowledge is the making necessary of all things, escaping our accidental quality (for we can be other than we are, it is assumed). Herein lies the attraction & the second determinism — this is the one Historical Inevitability refers to.

The irony Berlin identifies is quite curious: the scientific method is taken up to avoid resigning oneself to any principles of faith but ends in forfeiting one’s own freedom to one. He associates over-extending the codes of the natural sciences with a faith directly (18, 40, 73). More than fifty years earlier, William James had said just this: “‘Science’ in many ways is genuinely taking the place of a religion. Where this is so, the scientist treats the ‘Laws of Nature’ as objective facts to be revered” (The Varieties of Religious Experience 61). Oddly, the earlier pronouncement is made with much less caution — even if James can quickly be identified as more conservative than Berlin. Presumably, there isn’t yet a complete divide between religious & scientific pursuits at the start of the twentieth century (before the world wars, before Einstein’s determinism by causal laws).

Their common ground lies in the fact that in both cases the empirical world — referred to as “historical” in the vocabulary of this blog for belonging on the horizontal timeline — is viewed as figural to a truth that is atemporal. The relationship between religion & science begins & ends here.

Historical studies are especially competent at unknotting the binds of perfect causation. Berlin names a number of reasons: “all objectivity… is subjective, is what it is relatively to its own time & place” (60); “the ultimate ends of life pursued by men, are many, even within one culture & generation” (64) which suggests that human behavior cannot be entirely calculable; history cannot emulate the natural sciences because “the valuations which they embody, whether moral, political, aesthetic, or (as they often suppose) purely historical, are intrinsic & not, as in the sciences, external, to the subject-matter” (54).

Berlin’s focus is on reinstating the function of imagination to scientific deduction, especially when applied to the cross-over fields of history & sociology. One reason is that human beings shouldn’t be judged by the same moral code as inanimate objects “& that therefore we must seek to be fair, & not praise & blame arbitrarily or mistakenly, through ignorance or prejudice or lack of imagination” (28, emphasis mine). The other is that imagination is inescapable to continue in the procession of the everyday — at least as a functional fiction of personal freedom.


* Not a small part in our confidence is contributed by the accidental quality of the remaining fragment. Had it been a constructed piece, it wouldn’t be providence but editing in question which requires a more sceptical eye.


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