Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Subjects, Objects, and Christmas Carols

[Note:  This is an extension of the last post I did on human nature.  I am drawing -- and quartering, in some cases, maybe -- these ideas from R.G. Collingwood's The Idea of History.  As I am even less familiar with philosophy than with economics, and not to be trusted on the finer points of anything, the interested or skeptical reader is heartily encouraged to investigate for himself.]

Every year about this time, I am flabergasted by the bizarre and irritating renderings of Christmas carols.  For the past several, I have bought or received as gifts Christmas music CD's, almost all of which I find myself disappointed with.

The major problem for me is 1) I much prefer the older songs, and 2) almost nobody seems to understand them, so they can't seem to perform them in an appropriate manner.  Take, for example, Oh Come Emmanuel.  This is perhaps one of the very best ever written, and yet it never ceases to amaze me how badly it gets butchered, even more badly than most others.  After some thought, I think I have come up with the reason why.

Clearly, the song is a very powerful expression of the collision between hope, faith, and the temptation to despair at the condition of human existence 'under Satan's tyranny.'  Hence the powerful refrain, Rejoice!  Rejoice! -- sung mightily in the imperative -- the duty of the Christian who understands the message and power of the Incarnation.

This is a serious and powerful song whose principal theme is a message of strength and perseverance, and yet, each year, one is greeted with renderings like the following:

Note that musically, there's nothing really wrong with it.  It isn't bad, per se, it's just goofy.  It isn't appropriate.

The reason -- I think that most of the performers simply don't understand the song.  They can't fully relate to the ideas that it expresses, to what the author must have felt when he was writing it, if they relate at all.  It is just too old, and its sentiments too foreign.

Contrast this performance with the one below, a more modern rendering of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that has long been sung as a hymn:

Whether you particularly like the song or its style (I find the children's choir which is obviously lip-synching to be a bit phony and annoying) you can tell that the performance is at least appropriate.  I think it is even more appropriate than the original hymn.  The people on stage actually grasp the song's meaning and message.

Why?  Because it is an idea they can relate to.

Relation and Understanding

Suppose, however, musicians tried to perform music in the way that most modern thinkers approach the subject of science.  In other words, they tried to be 'objective' about it.

Rather than relate emotionally to the message by looking at the song 'from the inside,' they stood outside the song and tried to pick it apart, perhaps in terms of its 'psychology,' or the way the song reflected the underlying assumptions of social hierarchy of the time it was written.  They refused to allow their emotions and sympathies get in the way of understanding the 'objective truth' of the thing.  This, of course, would be a completely inappropriate treatment, but what would the performance eventually look like?

It would be a disaster -- mechanical, dry, empty, everything that music is not supposed to be.

And yet, for most people today, the notion of objectivity is synonymous with the idea of 'fair,' or 'accurate,' or 'correct.'  How would the musicians be able to produce a 'fair' representation of their object, if they were not objective about it?

Perhaps I haven't quite made the point I intended very well.  Performance of a piece of music is not the same as judgment, which is a more appropriate setting for getting at the notions of fairness and accuracy.  Suppose a judge were listening to these two performances and was asked to decide which performance was 'better.'

Should the judge view the performances purely 'objectively,' as objects, refusing to relate to the music in a subjective manner by allowing it to touch her sympathies and emotions, looking at the performances 'from within' rather than strictly 'from without?'  Perhaps if he did so, he might judge that the first performance showed more technical skill, so that it was the superior piece. 

Would such a judge have 'understood' the two pieces?

Would that be an appropriate way to judge?

Objectivity is Not Necessarily Fair -- Or Appropriate

What I have just described might be called a mistake of positivism -- the attempt to apply the methods of science to everything, even where it is inappropriate.  I have talked about this mistake quite a lot before, and committed it myself even more than that.  I am probably incurable.  It is, perhaps, the philosophical mistake of our time, and a difficult habit to break.

It is simply inappropriate to treat all things objectively -- as objects, rather than subjects.  Many things, perhaps even most things of importance in everyday life, cannot be understood by this approach.  They must be looked at from the inside, related to, sympathized with and then evaluated, before the most important truths can be known about them.

Many people believe that one of the most important of judgments -- the judgment over a criminal trial -- must be done objectively, 'strictly according to the law,' to be done fairly and justly.  Setting aside the 'according to the law' part for right now, I don't think that this can be correct, as I'll explain.  But deep down I believe that even most people who would say this also know it to be untrue.  How do I know?

Ask them how the Ultimate Judge -- God -- would do it, and how He will judge us when the time comes.  Supposing of course, that the person being so interrogated believed these things, or could at least to relate to the idea of the ultimate judgment of the soul.  God would know every corner of the soul, both the victim and the accused.  He will know every 'fact' of the case, seen both from the inside and out, and the relation between every facet and fact all the way out to the very ends of all truth.  He will be able to deliver 'true justice' just as surely as He has all perfect knowledge and perfect judgment.  But the important thing to note here is that to do so, He must be in part subjective about his analysis of the question, in order to render an objectively just verdict.  He must take into account all truth, not merely what may be known 'objectively.'  He will look at everything, from within and from without.

How can any judge understand the true evil of a crime unless he looks at the thing from the inside, rethinks the thoughts of the criminal in his own mind, the pain and anguish of the victim, and relates to them, to know these things for himself?  How can he render a fair judgment unless he has bothered to try to understand the crime?  It is impossible to understand such things purely as objects, they can only be got at as subjects, because they involve human volition and free-will.  The human is actor, decision  maker, not the passive object of the scientist's -- or judge's -- inquiry.  The thing one is after -- the truths concerning the essence of human action itself -- cannot be had by way of objective observation, only by the act of subjective understanding and relation to the mind and thoughts of the actor.

Of course, to truly understand and stand in a position to judge in the manner I have just described is a very difficult thing to do, perhaps impossible for humans to do very well at all in the case of such emotionally charged subjects as routinely come up in criminal law.  So, perhaps in that case it is better simply to judge according to the legal guidelines in an objective manner.  Nevertheless, deep down, it should be clear that this is not the way to do the thing properly, not merely as a matter of sentiment, but as a matter of logic.  No human action may be understood from the objective frame of reference, because to understand the action, one must understand the man, and be able to relate to his thoughts and their context.  And an action which has not been understood may not be properly judged or criticized.

Human Action as Subject and Object

Thus I arrive at the whole point of this essay and the last:  why it is that in so many ways people of the modern West have a difficult time understanding things from their own past -- like those old Christmas carols -- as well as themselves.  Of course, a big part of the reason is plain ignorance, true, but when people do try to investigate, they usually don't know how to go about understanding it, and generally try to do it in the wrong way -- the objective, 'scientific' way. 

Human volition and free-will act as monkey-wrenches tossed into the gears of the 'it is what it is,' positivistic analysis of man. Any analysis of human action which attempts to understand and properly answer the question of 'why' must treat man subjectively.  It is principally man's ability to form his own opinion and act upon his own will which makes his outward nature a dynamic and non-uniform quantity.  A man cannot be merely what he is, because he is free at a moment's notice to become something else.  What one is today may not be what he is tomorrow, and what applies to one individual or class of men may not apply to another.  Both across individuals and across time, he simply can't be perfectly pinned down.

Because they rely on positivistic assumptions, most modern 'histories' are not histories at all.  They may be 'investigations' of the past, or some other such sort of thing, but they can't be real histories because they make such an outlandish hash of looking into the human aspect -- the most important part.  Human actions in the past are just that -- human action, something which cannot be known or understood in an objective fashion.  These 'objective' histories may be able to describe certain aspects of events, but from the outset they preclude themselves of the possibility of actually understanding them.

The typical modern approach is a sort of two-part fiasco.  First, there is an effort to gather together the 'brute facts' of the matter -- the so-called 'data' -- then a secondary effort of finding the pattern and producing a theory that explains it.  Kind of like trying to discover the gas laws using temperature and pressure measurements and drawing graphs with them, except with an object completely refractory to such an analysis.

As one might expect, the effort appears to fail at the second stage, mainly because people don't know what to do.  After all, to do the impossible can tend to be a rather challenging thing.  In this attempted capacity of historical 'analysis' has grown up the thick weed-bed of the social sciences, among them sociology.  It is in this capacity of trying to find theories that 'explained' the data that investigators may have done some incidental little bits of history by accidentally relating to people when they weren't trying to, as well as some other social science like economics.

But by and large, if history requires one to understand specifically the element of human action in past events, then these things cannot really be history.  So, if the first stage does not attempt the understanding of history, and the second stage cannot, then, for the most part, history is not done, and it should come as little surprise that the field has experienced some degree of decline.  Most other fields which are not suitable to the application of scientific methods have experienced such declines as well.

In reality, it is not merely the second stage of the effort which is being neglected by this approach, but both.  Neither activity is appropriate.  As any high-school student will gladly relate, isolated 'facts' like dates and places do not help one to understand history, regardless of their quantity.  By tearing them from their context, the surroundings which give them meaning and connect them with one another, they lose intelligibility.  It is the body of 'facts' itself, which include what so-and-so was thinking when he did that dastardly/heroic deed, all in proper relation to one another which is the history, not the disected bits and pieces.

It does not matter, for example, in-and-of-itself that a letter from a certain person is dated a certain date.    The letter is an artifact of human action, and neither the date, the name, nor the letter mean anything apart from one another.  The writer may have been mistaken about his location or the time, or other such 'facts' contained within the letter, and the whole thing will be colored with his own point of view, his history and understanding.  What matters is the thing taken all together, all subjected to the historian's understanding of the document itself.  It must be evaluated for what it is, in the context of other historical evidence, its author related to by the historian, and evaluated as a whole as to what it suggests about the actions of people in the past.

It is easy to see how the drive to objectivize the study of history and the 'science of people' would tend to lead to the static and uniform picture of human nature as discussed in the last essay.  It is true that it is in the nature of things that one must look to find understanding -- but often that understanding is only accessible through the subjective approach.  A wrong approach with built-in wrong assumptions will give a wrong analysis.  But even given the very rudimentary analysis I have just related, it would seem that only a determined and willful obtuseness would explain the insistence on an objective approach to practically everything.

On the brighter side, it is also amazing and refreshing to see just how natural it is for a historian with a clear conscience to go about doing some real history once his head has been cleared of all the inane ideas which have been imposed upon him by the positivistic quasi-scientific outlook.  It is such a natural and normal thing to relate to other people, and to imagine having met the author of a book or historical work and to see the world through his eyes.  The innocent and imaginative child who first begins to really enjoy reading because he has involuntarily done just that is in many ways a more fit historian than most 'grown-ups.'  That is, at least until he has had his head ruined with a modern education.

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