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"Had we but world enough, and time..." *
Comprehensive Heuristics4/26/2005 00:49:59
Supposedly it would be a good idea to keep in check the motivations of one's studies and their methods.
In the course of thinking, I often come across the private phases or "megatheories" that shall be called comprehensive heuristics. These are the interpretive systems and structures that seem to render everything understandable, everything reducible, and everything reduced to common fundamental particles. Western intellectual history is replete with its own comprehensive heuristic fads, which always create ripples of (mistaken?) extension far beyond their original fields. Freudian analysis is a great example, by which seemingly every human thing is describable in terms of a set of analytic practices concerning dreams, free-association, &c. Marxism is another. Today, both arguably extend more practical influence over cultural and literary theory than in modern psychology and economics, respectively.
Another might be McCarthyism: evil is always derivative of communism. Darwinism is a big one. Through the extensions into social and linguistic (and everything else) natural selection, the power of Darwin's analytic structure has had tidal wave ripples. My own latest favorite is an adaptation of this: Dawkinsism, as derived from Richard Dawkins' famous book of 1976, The Selfish Gene. Throughout the book he provides very beautiful and satisfying examples of how human behavior can be reduced to natural selection battles between genes, rather than organisms. What a powerful idea-- I wonder why it has not been utterly co-opted by the literary theorists.
Religion generally tends to figure into this category of comprehensive heuristics as the chief of them all, especially the religion of Robin Horton's type, in which it is understood to be in essence an explanatory system.
Some sorts of thinking could be described as simply the search for these system that seem to explain everything. But why do we search for them? I am interested in this on a level of sensations, actually. Surely you know the feeling of bliss that comes from finding a method that seems to be applicable everywhere.
The human problem that comes at the end of the course of a comprehensive heuristic's run, theoretical problems aside (which I find to be usually determined by simpler human ones), is that finally the fundamental particles to which all has been reduced start to feel tiring and ultimately uninspiring as the basis of human self-understanding. Dawkins, for his part, is sensative to this. After deriving all of our behaviors, especially perceived altruism, to genetic "selfishness," he suggests that on the human level, this is simply not ideal, not satisfactory. Yes, our actions can be reduced to the uncouth biological, but that does not mean that we should turn this into a fundamental value. As human beings we have some ability to decide the terms on which life is to be lived. Like so perhaps the selfishness that underlies us may be abstracted out of the experience of human life, even while it is preserved as a scientific concept.
I tend toward the Dawkins approach on all such comprehensive heuristics, as I think most folks do who have seen their share of them. Despite the real possibility of explaining ourselves entirely through childhood sexuality or ownership or production or genetic selfishness, we can also choose not to, that they be left to work themselves through in the disciplines that need them.
Self-understanding, in contrast, must consider at once the complexity of the field made by all these conflicting interpretations. But ultimately it must reside in its own ideals, its own idea of the terms that it wants to assume. God is here a fairly good choice, representing a deferred understanding of the Entirety, grounded at once in both fact and the work of imagination. I suppose there are other choices as well, though if they get too concrete they risk becoming another frustrating comprehensive heuristic, in which we finally discover that we have sadly limited ourselves, or never discover it.
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