The Paradigm Problem

I've been thinking about progress a lot lately, mostly in responce to two discussions triggered by posts on this blog. Two posts have generated the most discussion, the one on MacIntyre and the progression of art, and the one discussion on the simularities between Foucault's epistemes and Thomas Kuhn's scientific paradigms, but a problem especially comes to light in a detailed analysis of the topic of the former, art. It seems that no matter how hard you keep your analysis on the ebb and flow of artistic trends and movements, you are forced to call larger trends into question.

I mean that not only that an artistic movement calls upon larger societal trends, but that other cultural disciplines are undergoing similar paradigmatic shifts, generally towards a similar end. There must, most obviously, be a link between wholly cultural phenomena (art, music, literature) and the culture at large, both generative and reactionary, obviously, between culture and its phenomena. But this shift also occurs in more objective areas as well, such as philosophy and science, disciplines that harbor a sense of aloofness.

To illustrate this linkage we need only look to the period between 1914 and the late 1920's. In art this period saw the rise of Dada and proto-surrealism, in philosophy and literature existentialism was gaining its footing in Europe (mostly France), and science (physics) saw the rise of Einstein's relativity. Even music saw a shift from the more conventional orchestral to the more experimental jazz. When we look at other shifting periods of time, such as the Renaissance or Enlightenment we see similar sweeping interdisciplinary paradigm shifts, we can even see one recently (albeit of a more schismatic nature) in the rise and fall of Post-Modernism.

In The Order of Things, Foucault calls these sweeping changes epistemes. And change in our cultural episteme is more than a change in how we represent our world, in artistic trend or philosophic or scientific paradigm. It is a more fundamental change in that it changes the world in a very real way, in that it changes how we see and measure the world, it changes the very features of the world. In a way the progression of epistemes is a one way arrow of change, in that we cannot go back and see the world from the eyes of previous epistemes. This is because it is represented by something more than cultural detritus and empheria, it is a living change.

This forces us away from a view where we can analyze any discipline within itself, ignorant of other areas of culture, in that each individual discipline in nothing more than a surface feature of a deeper cultural world (or Hegelian "spirit"). Which has problems when looking at disciplinary histories, in that the basic view of the world itself has changed in irretrievable ways (in that we are embedded in our own episteme), and our very view of the past is determinate on our current episteme.

Now that we have nailed down the existence of these mysterious sweeping changes, and the even more nebulous interdisciplinary linkage, we must illuminate two related topics, that of causality and that of essence. What is an episteme functionally, and what causes the progression of cultural paradigms? There has been some good thought on this issue, but none of it seems comprehensive, it all seems like a tentative explanation. Both Foucault and MacIntyre have covered this, as have (more famously and opaquely) Hegel, and in a more limited scope Kuhn. But all of these philosophers don't seem to explain it with any degree of satisfaction.

Foucault explains the actual landscape of episteme best, but still leaves the functional essence somewhat mysterious. Hegel (and by extension MacIntyre) try to explain the method of episteme shift, but get bogged down in either a myth of progress or goodness (respectively). Hegel's dialectic explanation also seems to lack some explanatory power (was surrealism really the antithesis of Dada?), being too rigid to fit within the actual world, even though his idea of and term "Spirit" summed up the issue nicely. Foucault's interplay of power as paradigmatic engine (see it as a headless version of Hegel) seems closest to the mark, but leaves much to be explained. Both Marx and Kuhn are almost pointless in the bigger picture, since they seem to ignore the forest for the trees.

I would say that the idea of episteme shift is the biggest question mark in philosophy (a discipline consisting of only question marks). It plays the largest role in our lives, and history, but we have almost no understanding of what it actually means. It is hard to even see what we are talking about, except in retrospect, since it seems that history indeed can be likened to a river, and we are just detritus upon it, carried by the flow. It is easier to see where we were (except for the problems discussed earlier), than where we are, and almost impossible to see where we're going.

This, if you couldn't tell, is not some thesis I am writing, this is a large mutli-paragraph question mark. It is a rant feeling around some great void in our understanding of the world (like a tongue to a missing tooth). I'm not even sure of the point of this brief essay, outside of making more awareness of the issue, and perhaps opening some much needed debate on the issue.

As a quick aside (and hopefully opening shot of debate) before hitting the post button, has anyone put any thought to the relation between Foucault and the modern idea of memes. Could not memes be the embodiment of his antagonistic powers that drive history and culture?

(ps sorry for the odd tag format, due to computer problems I have been forced to abandon Ecto, and use Fintan's tag generator)

1 comment:

David said...

a wonderful read, this is. i think you'd relaly like, "eye to eye" by Ken Wilber.