The disinterested pursuit of the truth in a sense which Descartes or Karl Popper understand it — as subject to falsification, to experimental proof, to logical constraint — this pursuit is not universal. I know this is an unfashionable thing to affirm, but the disinterested hunt for abstract truth is culturally specific; its history is relatively brief, it has a geography of its own. It is an Eastern Mediterranean phenomenon which in turn energized the Western intellectual and scientific tradition. Why did it originate where it did (in Asia-Minor, in Greece, somewhere around the end of the seventh, or perhaps the start of the sixth century B.C.)? This is a very difficult question, possibly related to factors of climate, of protein diet, of a masculine-dominated kinship system in which men were predatory and had a dominant questing role. Perhaps there would not have been pure, speculative thought without slavery, without the fact that men had leisure, to give their will and energy and ambitions to problems not immediately related to economic and personal survival. In other words, the pursuit of truth is, from the outset, a pursuit. It has elements of the hunt and of conquest. There is a characteristic moment in one of Plato’s dialogues when at the end of a very difficult, logical demonstration, the disciples and the crowds standing around, give a literal “Haloo”, the cry of the hunter when he has cornered his quarry.
George Steiner, Nostalgia for the Absolute, pp. 51-2
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Steiner begins by examining the impact of the “death of God” and the decline of Christianity as well as the emergence of various alternatives to and replacements of Christianity in the modern world. As he examines these alternatives and replacements, he concludes that each is lacking in fundamental ways and fails to achieve its goal of creating a new system by which man can live and, most importantly for Steiner, each evades the truth of the matter in favor of a new mythology. The conversation then shifts to a discussion of whether truth and human survival are commensurable and even compatible. Steiner concludes from his discussion that truth is paramount and that man should seek truth even at the risk of his own destruction. While there is much that can be said here, my own thoughts largely fall into two areas:
1. While Steiner does a decent job in his exploration of the question of whether truth and human survival are coterminous and I agree with his assessment that they are not necessarily so, what Steiner fails to address is whether human beings are truth-capable, that is, whether humans actually possess the requisite faculties to ascertain and understand truth. This question of epistemology is, I believe, a fundamental question and on which, if the answer is negative (and I believe that it must be if we adopt any sort of secular anthropology), has significant ramifications for Steiner’s ideas.
2. I find myself disagreeing with Steiner’s overall conclusion. Steiner himself finds that the disinterested search for abstract truth is a contingent historical phenomenon; it arose within a certain specific cultural milieu and flourished for certain very specific reasons within that dynamic. Human survival, both personal and collective, on the other hand, is visceral, biological, and universal. He provides the reader with no adequate reason for believing that truth is of more importance than humanity. In addition, he seems to leave us with a scenario reminiscent of the famous Zen koan “if a tree falls in the woods and there is no one to hear it, does t make a sound?” If truth continues to exist and there is no one to perceive it and understand it, does it really exist? Again, Steiner fails to address epistemology.
All in all, I enjoyed this book a great deal and I recommend it to anyone interested in the state of thought in the modern world.