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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


The title of the book identifies two common and antithetic metaphors of
mind, one comparing the mind to a reflector of external objects, the other
to a radiant projector which makes a contribution to the objects it perceives.
The first of these was characteristic of much of the thinking from Plato to
the eighteenth century; the second typifies the prevailing romantic conception of the poetic mind.-- M.H. Abrams, preface to his own THE MIRROR AND THE LAMP (1953).

Are the products of human culture bound to the finitude of human existence, or do they contain a moment of transcendence, an "eternal validity?"-- Edward Skidelsky, summarizing the positions of Heidegger and Cassirer vis-à-vis culture, in ERSNT CASSIRER (p. 214) 

I confess that I never got around to reading Abrams' famous lit-crit book.  Its title simply came to mind after I finished reading Skidelsky's book, and found myself returning to the dichotomy proposed by Hegel re: "reflective" and "speculative" forms of philosophy-- a dichotomy I first explored in this essay.  In that essay I complained that almost all comics-criticism today is practiced in the "reflective" mode, which would seem a natural analogue to Abrams' "mirror," given that the mirror connotes the ideal of reproducing the world as it is.  It's not much of a stretch, then, to see an analogous relationship between Hegel's "speculative philosophy" and Abrams' "radiant projector," given that the root word of "speculate" is "to look"-- and how can one look at anything, without a source of light?  Further, the speculative mode is an active one, imagining the interaction of an "intellectual intuition" with the world even as we apprehend it, while the reflective mode is passive, the same way that the mirror is passive in its reflection of appearances.  Mirrors don't show their reflective qualities unless some phenomenon provides light whereby those qualities may be seen.  The lamp requires human intervention to make its illuminative qualities come alive, but once activated, its nature in reality and as metaphor suggests continued activity rather than a passive operation.

I should note in passing that Abrams and Skidelsky propose tenable yet wholly opposed views of cultural history. 

For Abrams, the "metaphor of mind" in which a human subject seeks to reproduce the world "as it is" has dominated human culture from the era of Plato until the 18th century, while the metaphor that posits the mind as making an illuminating contribution to the world's ordering is one of comparatively recent vintage.

For Skidelsky, though, what I am calling "speculative philosophy," the philosophy of the lamp, is one that dominated human culture at least since the Renaissance, which is as far back as this author extends his cultural analysis-- and such cultural speculations have usually affirmed that, yes, some transcendent validity is indeed possible .  The rise of the technical sciences, which in Hegelian terms causes the rise of "reflective philosophy," is the comparative newbie on the block, and under the scrutiny of the so-called exact science, all culture is indeed "bound to the finitude of human existence?"

The solution to the contrast is not a hard one, though.  While it's possible to cite exceptions to Abrams' Aristotelian view of literary culture from Plato onward-- I mention one such exception in my reading of Longinus-- he's probably right that literature was dominated by the mimetic impulse, at least in Europe and the United States. Yet for many authors the "real world" was a glass through which one could perceive, however "darkly," the hand of God or similar abstractions.  Thus finitude could lead one to infinitude.

In contrast, philosophy was the primary home of such abstractions for many years.  But with the rise of technical sciences, philosophy had to throw more of a "light" on its own operations.  And so philosophy increasingly began to frame its abstract questions in more formally logical terms, as we have seen in the rise of "symbolic logic"-- which is another way of saying that the idea of infinitude is seen as derivable from finite causes. 

Yet it may be observed that at the same time the Romantics' aversion to scientism led them to endorse in literature abstractions no longer possible in philosophy.  This transformation of literary priorities didn't occur overnight, for even through the 19th and early 20th centuries, the ideal of "fantasy" in literature remains disreputable for authors seeking a literary reputation.  Yet by the late 20th century, fantasy's highly abstract evocations of the infinite are embraced by such authors as Borges, Calvino, Lessing and Eco.  None of these authors maintain any continuity with the literary tradition of " the Romantics" as we know them today.  Yet it may not be a coincidence that some moderns find themselves embracing those modes of thought rejected by many modern philosophers, who apparently hunger for the validation given "the exact sciences."

This hunger for what Walter Cerf deems the tendency to "solve intellectual puzzles rather than give the true conceptual vision of the whole" will be one of the subjects of Part 2.

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