“Have At You, You Blind Harpers!”

I read this traditional saying this evening in a book about the history of words.  Its “attack” is a lot more violent than I wanted for a title; but I wanted also something to stir up attention in potential readers, so that what I have to say, which I do believe is important to readers, is not passed over without arousing interest.

The guy who wrote the book on words said that this saying was used by a person when s/he got exasperated, and like Popeye “Can stands so much; but can’t stands no more!”. A prelude to violence then? I don’t think so; at least not by me, I hope.

The themes I want to write about today were prompted by me reading another book titled “Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle”, which book is by an eminent writer and scientist lately deceased, and it is about the discovery of, and the ungraspable vastness of, geological time.

We don’t really need to go into what geological time is; maybe except to say that the earth is estimated presently by scientists to be around 4.5 billion old; and this long ago was when it first began to coagulate and consolidate physically as a discrete object in the solar system.

I will add that this eminent writer is looking specifically at how we use metaphors to try to come to grips with such enormous sized amounts, in this case of time.  One such metaphor which the writer recommends and approves, and congratulates its first formulator on, goes like this:

“Consider the earth’s history as the old measure of the English yard, the distance from the king’s nose to the tip of his outstretched hand. One stroke of a nail-file on the king’s middle finger erases al human history.”

It’s cute, alerting, memorable. I’ll just say it’s heavily laden with its own kinds of prejudice – I don’t want to make a big deal of this right now.

The eminent author writes about what he calls “The Whig Fallacy of Historians”. In a few words he tells us this fallacy consists of:

“….the idea of history as a tale of progress, permitting us to judge past figures by their roles in fostering enlightenment as we now understand it..”

What he is saying then is that it is wrong of us to judge events of the past by us using the measuring rods we accept as being the correct ones in our own day and age. He is saying it is wrong for us to judge upon historical events by us using those values and prejudices, aspirations, hopes, and considerations, which are prevalent in our own times, and of which we approve.

If what this author says is true, and this is a fallacy to do so, I can see only one viable alternative to judging history in any way. That alternative must be for us to judge history according to its own standards, that is by using the mores and beliefs as these were in favour and adhered to at the time the events were occurring?  Can you see any other viable way forwards?

So, we judge say, the crusades, by the ethos and motivations, the regard of massive cruelty and relentless intolerance, which both sides, those fighting as it were as Christians, and those fighting as it were as Saracens, espoused and perpetrated?

Should we approve of neither side then? Nor disapprove of any side? Just try to tell it “like it was”?  Are we then seeking after an “objective” telling of history by writing about the crusades like this? Is a history written without value judgements then an “objective “ history written; or is it no history at all, since what interpretation is able to be drawn from mere unevaluated “facts”? And is there anybody, anyone, who is capable of writing such an opinion-free, value-judgement-absent book of history? Are we any of us so stolid and self restrained?

The argument then which proposes “The Whig Fallacy” as I see it is an exact parallel to the argument certain theologians prefer which derides the Christian who makes her judgements on what are, and how to do, good deeds, by appeal to the Standard of them always having loving intent. Sometimes this loving intent is substituted in the derision with “considering what Jesus would do/have done”. But subjectively, substantively, the difference between the two derided positions is identical, I believe.

Take away loving intent as the standard by which to decide on and so do a good deed and you are with the supporters of The Whig Fallacy argument about the writing of history. What is one left with? A ludicrous situation in which one does a good deed coldly, or with negative emotions, or lukewarm; but not with loving care! In just the same way history written without authorial engagement, or in a ludicrous attempt at “objectivity” or at a ‘factual” rendition only – it is no history.

For a person who has no religious faith, and even for a person with strong religious faith, there is no other handle, no set of values and sympathies other than those to which s/he subscribes, and these inevitably will be heavily influenced by the present state and mores of the society to which s/he belongs.  For persons without religious faith the inevitability will be stronger in these present days which are so out of touch with this part of our heritage. But even for strong believers in God there will be much encroachment on any “fundamental” positions extracted by them as theirs (from the gospels and New Testament). Everyone who loves God knows this – that this is the struggle.

So I am saying that The Whig Fallacy has no basis on which to rest itself; neither empirically nor ideally, barring the exception I gladly make (especially in my own regard) for The Word of Jesus.  Just as The Word of Jesus is the watchword to which we refer to obtain validity and authentication for our aims and loving desires to do good deeds; so too we can rest all our understanding and interpretations of history and its deeds and ideas, again on the Word of Jesus as our final measuring rod and estimator.

The Word of Jesus, which is all those red letter words you see printed highlighted in a lot of older Bibles, is able then, and I believe not just for believers of faith but for all people, to stand as The Objective Standard by which to judge human behaviour and intentions. Non-believers are not likely to see that this as so and will probably disagree with me, but nonetheless…..

Now how might I demonstrate practically that what I have argued in piece here is inevitably the case?  I go to our eminent lately deceased author of the book “Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle”, and to where he writes:

“Our geological textbooks recount the discovery of deep time

[geological time]

on this whiggish mode, as a victory of superior observation finally freed from constraining superstition. (Each of my subsequent chapters contains a section on this “textbook cardboard” as I call it). In the bad old days, before men rose from their armchairs to look at rocks in the field, biblical limitations of the Mosaic chronology precluded any understanding of our earth’s history. Burnet [17th century theologian author of “The Sacred History of the Earth”] represented this antiscientific irrationalism, so well illustrated by the inclusion of the word “sacred” in his titular description of our planet’s history.  (Never mind that he got into considerable trouble for his allegorical interpretation of the “days” of Genesis as potentially long ages.) Burnet therefore represents the entrenched opposition of church and society to the new ways of observational science.”

Oh how much here in this citation there is to discuss and to wonder at! The author’s values (coincidentally?) coincide precisely with those which the adherents to the ascendancy of science in our time hold fast to, as if they were from sacred books.

His values clearly are rationality, and enlightenment, based on empiricism, and physical observations, together with scientific pursuit and freedom from constraint. All of these values, in the context our author is using them here in his passage, are that same set of the values ubiquitously held across contemporary scientific academic and/or intellectual society.  In practical terms then, there is no distinction to be made between him judging written history as he is doing here, and him judging from that point of view, condemned by him, but adopted by adherents to The Whig Fallacy.

He might retort and say in earnest that those values, that set, he picks out for his own are definitive values; that is they are The Universal Standard for all people at all times and that the ascendancy and the glorious products of the past three centuries of scientific thought are the proof of his claim.  Still I maintain, where might even a hair’s breadth be inserted to distinguish in practice his position from that of The Whig Fallacy?

Now take a look at the denominative words he uses in his passage, so as to make an impression upon his readers that he is in the truth in these regards.  These denominative words fall into two groups: the first – those used in praise – the second – those used pejoratively. 

First a list of praise words:

Victory

Superior observation

New ways of observational science

Freed from constraining

Understanding of our earth’s history

Now a list of pejoratives

This whiggish mode

Superstition

Constraining

Textbook cardboard

Bad old days

Precluded

Antiscientific irrationalism

Entrenched opposition

Three of the praise words are used by him rhetorically, in effect inverting their impact to pejorative. We can demonstrate this by coupling them with their object:

Victory                                     )                                  

Superior observation              )

Freed from constraining        )                                    …on this whiggish mode

The sole word of substantive praise then is reserved for its own special object:

New ways of observational science)                …understanding of our earth’s history

The larger list of pejoratives forms a sustained unqualified defamation of:

Burnet and his book

The practice of antiscientific irrationalism

Mosaic and biblical chronology

Our geological textbooks

The old days

The whiggish mode

Constraining superstition

The use of the word “sacred” with the topic “earth history”

Entrenched opposition from church and society

The numbers of praise versus pejorative words nominally at least offer a clue to the level of balance offered here in these arguments made by our author.  He clearly has something to destroy, to debunk, to steamroller. Little toleration; little latitude.

Superstition is used by the author as a synonym for religion.

Religion therefore is said to be constraining

The word sacred is the object of the descriptor antiscientific irrationalism which he uses

The bad old days were the days before the new ways of observational science

Burnet is conflated with, being the exemplar of, The Church

Burnet is representative of the antiscientific irrationalism of the Church (and Society)

Biblical limitations of the Mosaic chronology (had) precluded (closed off the possibility for) any understanding of our earth’s history

There is left over that small fillip offered as damning faint praise to Burnet:

(Never mind that he got into considerable trouble for his allegorical interpretation of the “days” of Genesis as potentially long ages) 

This statement clearly says to us as readers “we shall ignore this factor” and to the more probing reader “this factor is inconvenient to the whole drift of the argument”. As an attempt at ‘balance’ it is offered somewhat in bad faith.

(Moreover, as it is expressed the meaning is unclear; towards ambiguity. Burnet got in trouble clearly; but was it for using allegory, or for his actual interpretation? Or was it because his argument halted at stating only “potentially” long ages? The uninformed reader is left helpless by the author)

Now, is this type of writing in fact rigorous argument; is it more like polemic, is it admissible as scientific evidence?

I understand that the author’s only available tools are words for his book which is aimed at a general audience of intelligent curious persons; yet even so, and bearing this in mind, one might argue that all the more his approach is not a valid one simply because it offers not enough detail for such a reader to be assured s/he has to come to a relatively independent informed decision on a variety of mixed issues raised here.

The passage I have cited comes early in the book and I am sure it is supplemented considerably in the body of the text. Yet I would argue that the conclusions, which this passage reads as if that is where it belongs, should be placed at the end of a book of this kind, and not “jumped to” in a very early chapter, even if fully corroborated later on.

But above all, words are deceivers; I hope I have begun to show you how they are able to deceive you? “Of the heart’s fullness the mouth will speak” says our Lord Jesus, who is indeed one of the most hard-headed thinkers, and the one most lacking in reliance on superstitions, of any person available to history.  These and all the other words of the Lord Jesus are perspicacious in the extreme; and are hardly to be termed antiscientific irrationalism. His statements and arguments rely often wholly on a rigorous logic of inescapable conclusions.

To call His religion superstition is no more nor less than – I use a pejorative, but justly, here – a slur, even an ignorant slur, by which I mean, He and His words and deeds, therefore His religion, have not been understood properly by our author.

Words have meanings which are usually fairly definite, but the application of these meanings in conjunctions of syntax and grammar are easily able to seduce and deceive readers – and the writers of them also.  How easy it is in using English to insinuate without committing to a statement; to place a praise word in a place which ridicules its bona fide usage and so demeans via a literary slight-of-hand its associated objects. I have taken pains to illustrate by examples how this author’s passage os working in places in this way.

It is possible also, and I think this author is a little guilty here, to use words like a grouse shooter uses a shotgun; whereby the shooter hits a bird by means of a broad scatter of pellets some of which are sure to hit and wound the bird.  It is then, a cumulative effect of persistent and frequent disparagements in language which are able to sway readers whose attention is not fully on the language they are reading, nor on the ways it is obtaining its effects. 

The appeal of such passages is primarily emotional, and they are offered to the feelings, as raised responses, of a reader, as these are helped to be evoked by a barrage of linguistic apparatus. An apparatus which is perhaps not consciously intended to raise hackles; but nonetheless one a shade intemperate and something lacking in serious self-discipline.  I have been guilty of this.

Another author, who is committing against our present author, might write in reply to him and use the exact same sets of praise and pejorative words as the passage above uses; but still absolutely turn on their heads the targets and the imports of these words; and indeed might be tending towards inflaming readers for or against any set of such antagonistic oppositions. Words are deceivers, even of those who write them down.

The passage I’ve cited above might be rewritten quite deftly so as to have the new ways of observational science as the villains of the piece and the entrenched opposition of church and society as its heroes.

As a final item, one last pitch, I do want to point out that our author does make a great solecism in his passage. Consider the differences and similarities, how, in their discrete contexts in the passage, their ramifications intermingle; in these two phrases he uses:

1. Superior observation…….. (finally freed from constraining superstition)

and

2. (The entrenched opposition of church and society to)……. the new ways of observational science

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