Two Ways of Seeing

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” – Hamlet Act 1 Scene 5

Problems of perspective

As children mature into adulthood, tension often develops with their parents. The struggle tells of the complexity in reconciling two unique perspectives bound up in the parent-child bond. The child, flexing his capacity for self-actualisation, increasingly demands to be viewed as he sees himself: an intrepid adventurer on the verge of entering adult experience. The child alone possesses the ‘internal’ view of his being, with all the unassailable authority over his affairs that this appears to confer. However, the parent cannot disassociate from having welcomed the helpless child into the world. Through conscious and unconscious acts of nurture and discipline, the parent has enacted a profound shaping influence on the child’s consciousness, one that will take years for him to begin to comprehend. The parental view of the child is external, coming from the vantage point of adulthood, the strange country to which the child is headed but of which he is not yet a citizen. Yet the internal perspective of child and external perspective of parent are not easily reconciled into a united view. Both vantages offer a form of insight into the identity and human condition of the child, but neither furnish the whole. To a greater or lesser degree, parent and child may attempt to draw the other towards their way of seeing, they may attempt to empathise with one another’s perspectives, but true ‘stereoscopic’ vision appears virtually impossible. Moreover, this is not an academic question: the existential and emotional struggles as children and parents attempt to articulate and integrate their unique visions can be profound.

This struggle stands as a metaphor for the complexity of reconciling different perspectives in the realm of human inquiry. For we possess a number of modes of insight into what may be known about reality, modes that do not necessarily integrate comfortably with one another. Our direct involvement with the world and our detached reflection about it present us with apparently distinct modes of engagement; different vantage points via which we may obtain a view of what is real and meaningful. Human beings can develop understanding of the reality they inhabit through means as diverse as studying mathematics, meditating, making love, reading literature, raising children, conducting scientific experiments, walking in the park or nursing ageing relatives. But describing, integrating and attributing value to these different forms of insight is not straightforward.

The toolshed metaphor of C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis wrestled deeply with these questions of perspective in his thinking. In the young Lewis’ thought life, the rational and poetic modes of insight had stood in uneasy opposition to one another. On the one hand, as a scholar of the first rate, he possessed highly developed abilities in detached, literary analysis. On the other, since childhood he had experienced bouts of intense longing and a preternatural sensitivity to the poetic and mythic. Despite his undeniable imaginative insights, the unhappy Lewis had felt himself trapped by an apparent necessity of reason to profess a glib, scientistic rationalism of the kind so characteristic of his age. Yet all the while, in his voracious literary consumption, he had the uncanny sense that it was writers and poets with a less rationalistic perspective who provided the more solid and weighty view of reality:

The most religious (Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil) were clearly those on whom I could really feed. On the other hand, those writers who did not suffer from religion and with whom my sympathy ought to have been complete—Shaw and Wells and Mill and Gibbon and Voltaire—all seemed a little thin; what as boys we called ‘tinny.’ It wasn’t that I didn’t like them. They were all (especially Gibbon) entertaining; but hardly more. There seemed to be no depth in them. They were too simple. The roughness and density of life did not appear in their books…”i

Lewis came to sense that his uneasy dichotomy between rationality and imagination was a false choice. Perhaps there was not one ‘correct’ way of seeing the world, but that in order to grasp the fullest sweep of reality, a person ought to make peace with a synthesis of perspectives. But could reason and imagination be brought together; could abstract theory and primary experience be held in tension in this way? In the course of his reflections, Lewis developed the evocative ‘toolshed’ metaphor to articulate the relation of these different modes of insight:

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.

Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, ninety-odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.”ii

In Lewis’ picture, the different modes of engagement with the beam of light are analogous to two distinct modes of enquiry into what exists. To look along is to have the primary experience of engagement with reality. In this mode we neither analyse nor abstract, but rather touch first-hand what is concrete in the world outside us: persons, sensations, phenomena. This mode includes both empirical investigation and the realm of imaginative insight (i.e. the poetic, artistic, and spiritual visions of the world). By contrast, to stand back and look at the beam is to analyse and abstract, to theorise in a manner only possible within the quiet of the intellect, distanced from the immediacy of primary experience. Looking at the beam, and looking along it provide different experiences, different modes of perception into reality.

At the heart of Lewis’ metaphor is the realisation that the two perspectives cannot be simultaneously employed. To gain distance between oneself and the beam of light in order to contemplate its shape and character, one must necessarily step back from the primary experience of observing the world outside. Yet to gain the perspective capable of transporting the mind outside the gloom of the toolshed, into the content of the beam, one must give up the instrumental, distanced stance. Thus, one of the fundamental dilemmas of man’s enquiry into reality is that the two modes os seeing cannot be simultaneously inhabited:

While we are loving the man, bearing pain, enjoying pleasure, we are not intellectually apprehending Pleasure, Pain or Personality. When we begin to do so, on the other hand, the concrete realities sink to the level of mere instances or examples: we are no longer dealing with them, but with that which they exemplify. This is our dilemma -either to taste and not to know or to know and not to taste – or, more strictly, to lack one kind of knowledge because we are in an experience or to lack another kind because we are outside it… You cannot study Pleasure in the moment of nuptial embrace, nor repentance while repenting, nor analyse the nature of humour while roaring with laughter. But when else can you really know these things?”iii

Without primary experience, we have only the abstractions of our own minds, disconnected from external realities. Yet without intellectual reflection and abstraction, our primary experiences of the concrete world become simply an uncategorised sequence of bare facts and signs. Without the use of reason, we cannot rightly be said to understand or attribute meaning to what has arrived through our senses from the external world of phenomena.

The struggle to reconcile perspectives

Perhaps for the very reason that we cannot inhabit these two perspectives simultaneously, most people exhibit an innate preference for one or other mode of insight. Relatively early in childhood, it is often possible to discern between those who thrive on primary experience and those whose preference is for disengaged contemplation and logical abstraction. There is usually a draw towards the roles of either experimentalist or theoretician, painter or critic, palaeontologist or pure mathematician; in other words, towards a preference for ‘looking along’ or ‘looking at’. But Lewis warns against these preferences of perspective solidifying into hard prejudices towards our less-preferred mode of engaging with reality. Since we cannot know a priori whether one, both, or neither mode provides us with truth, “we must start with no prejudice for or against either kind of lookingiv

Such a prejudice has demonstrably hamstrung the progress of the natural sciences on numerous occasions. In the field of analytic chemistry, a rationalist paradigm positing the non-reactivity of the noble gases led to decades of stagnation in understanding. A prevailing ‘looking at’ mode of intellectual abstraction had theorised that since the outer electron shells of these atomic species were fully packed, reactions with other species were impossible. However, when such reactions were actually physically attempted (in the face of the prevailing theory) it turned out they were possible after all. It took a ‘looking along’ engagement with the real phenomena of the world to correct the decades-long inertia of a faulty theory.

The value of open-ness to both perspectives is revealed strikingly in the realm of music. Music is an abstract system of sound in time, but is neither a solely poetic or logical entity. Music submits to a degree of theoretical analysis, but the theory cannot account for the strange power of music to elicit powerful meanings in the mind. As such, composers must be open to the primacy of imaginative impulses, yet also to gain distance from them. They must be able to step into a theoretical mode to enable the ordered harmonisation of their subjective insights. In the work of great composers we find perhaps a paradigmatic example of the value of fluidity in switching between modes. For example, the structure of Beethoven’s 5th symphony is built on the theoretically informed interplay of major and minor motifs, and yet the overall effect – an intense conflict between light and darkness – is freighted with imaginative and poetic power. v There is a deep correspondence to reality. The tonal system underlying the minor and major motifs is logical and highly abstract, and yet Beethoven marshalls it in his music to produce great emotive power. The listener is in no doubt that his music speaks of things beyond the system of ‘sound in time’ on which it is built. There is a remainder that goes beyond the theory. The composer is not irrational, but he is certainly more than cooly logical. As Beethoven wrote to his patron in the dedication to his Missa Solemnis; “From the heart – may it return to the heart!”vi There is in the great artist a self-conscious and unashamed openness to the world of the noumenal, the emotional, the imaginative.

A different approach to composition is possible; the formal structures of music can be manipulated in a manner which seeks to follow a detached, rational mode of ‘construction’. However the results of this ‘looking at’ paradigm of composition are very different. In stark contrast to the weighty reality and harmony of a Beethoven’s symphony, the atonal, rationalist music of composers such as Schoenberg and Boulez feels weightless and disturbingvii. There is a fundamental poetic and emotional difference that is instantly discernible even to those with no understanding of the abstractions of music theory. Without rational mastery of tonal theory, great music is impossible, but when detached reason dominates, there is a perverse subversion of something true, a wilful deconstruction of beauty.

The disabling effect of hyper-rationalism

There is a disability in forcefully rejecting the ‘looking along’ of primary experience in favour of the ‘looking at’ mode of contemplation within the ordered toolshed of the intellect. For it is only in the narrow area of abstract logic that we can truly escape the necessity (and value) of encountering the brute particulars of what is ‘out there’. Beginning from an assumed set of axioms, the logician can say with great confidence that “A is not non-A”, or “all bachelors are unmarried men”. Unfortunately, such tautological contemplations are next to useless in the world of concrete particulars in which we must all actually live. If we want to make meaningful comparisons relevant to the world out there, we must engage with phenomena. If we want to discover which mountain is taller, or why such-and-such animal lives in one place and not another, or why so-and-so person has become ill, we must go out and measure, observe, experience. We must ‘look along’, and in so doing we must gaze outside the bounded spaces, the ordered tool-sheds of our own minds. As Lewis puts it:

When it becomes clear that you cannot find out by reasoning whether the cat is in the linen-cupboard, it is Reason herself who whispers, ‘Go and look.’”viii

Mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was another thinker who wrestled with the apparent immiscibility of the two modes of seeing. In his view, it was the philosopher who ought ideally to fulfil a vital role as ‘critic of abstractions’ix, through his balanced engagement with both the world of concrete facts and the skilled manipulation of abstractions. However, along with Lewis, Whitehead also saw that this tension is not easily maintained, that the siren song of abstraction can be deafening; “the ability to think effectively with abstractions is likely to obscure insight into concrete events.” x As rational beings, humans would always be tempted towards rationalism: towards imposing their systems on the world. We appear to have an innate tendency towards what has been called the ‘Semmelweis reflex’ – the urge to reject insights that seem irrelevant to our rational paradigms or fail to neatly fit them. In this the faculty of reason can cease to become interpretive and become determinative and instrumental: it arbitrates what the shape of reality is permitted to be. For Whitehead, the ability to properly critique the rationalist tendency towards abstraction was only likely to be possible in a person who kept themselves open to “a wide and profound knowledge of the concrete fact contained within the world of common sense, the world of the poet, and the world of the scientist.”xi Put in Lewis’ terms, Whitehead believed that the best control against getting lost in our own intellectual machinations was to regularly ’step into the beam’ in the toolshed; to acquaint ourselves time and again with primary experience of the things we wish to understand. If we do not frequently open ourselves to primary experience, our intellectual accounts of the world risk becoming two-dimensional; ‘tinny’ as Lewis might put it.

The commonplace contempt for the so-called ‘armchair expert’ comes from just this phenomenon; a person whose apparent wealth of knowledge is betrayed by a telling lack of the insights that can come only through intuition. The armchair expert may expound at great length on the topic of fishing, or sailing or soldiering; they may pepper their analysis with references to any number of authoritative texts; but unless they have actually sat on a freezing riverbank, or safely navigated a dinghy through a squall, or stared down the enemy on the field of combat, we can rightly dismiss their ‘insights’ as only partly formed. Our intellectualisation only gets us so far towards the full meaning of anything. Erwin Schrodinger’s meditation on our accounting of the sensation of colour reflects the same phenomenon:

“The sensation of colour cannot be accounted for by the physicist’s objective picture of light-waves. Could the physiologist account for it, if he had fuller knowledge than he has of the processes in the retina and the nervous processes set up by them in the optical nerve bundles and in the brain? I do not think so.”


Schrodinger draws into sharp relief the distinction between the theoretical explanation of how human vision works (‘looking at’), and the primary experience of apprehending colour in the human consciousness (‘looking along’). There is much that would remain unsaid about the nature of colour perception if we focused on the physiological theory alone. The profundity of the experience of seeing is so fundamental to a proper accounting of vision that too strong a preference for ‘looking at’ can actually become a disability to knowledge. For this reason, G.K. Chesterton saw the drive towards hyper-rationalism as a particular source of madness. To him, “…the madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” Reason unchecked by regular contact with ordinary facts of life can bind a person into a tight little circle, tight enough to remove anything that causes problems or inconsistencies, but resultantly constricted in its correspondence to reality. Taken on their own terms, abstract, rationalist theories are not necessarily internally incoherent, yet they can display a profound poverty of meaning, being devoid of correspondence to anything that really matters. As Chesterton says of the Modernist materialism so fashionable in his day:

As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman’s argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out. Contemplate some able and sincere materialist, . . . and you will have exactly this unique sensation. He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world. Somehow his scheme, like the lucid scheme of the madman, seems unconscious of the alien energies and the large indifference of the earth; it is not thinking of the real things of the earth, of fighting peoples or proud mothers, or first love or fear upon the sea.”

Contrary to the diminished perspective of the hyper-rationalist, author John Waters writes of the balanced view of reality often found in those who deal day by day with the affairs of the external world. Considering his father’s generation – all craftsman of different stripes – Waters notes how their daily and unavoidable interaction with the primary facts of reality appeared to prevent the form of unchained abstraction that so easily loses correspondence with reality:

The thinking of my father and uncles was true because it was trained by reality itself. It derived from their physical engagement with the world rather than arriving as a series of signals they had learned to receive. For them, fixing things was compatible with a modest ambition to adhere to the laws of reality, not to set themselves above it, and so their judgments tended to be balanced, aphoristic, and persuasive.”

The poetic perspective

In these observations, we touch a key aspect of Whitehead’s earlier warning, about the need to respect the ‘the world of common sense, the world of the poet’ if we are to keep in check the tendency of the intellect towards untethered abstractions. Of the various categories of primary experience constitutive of ‘looking along’, what might be called ‘poetic insight’ is one of the most profound. As George Steiner puts it:

Serious painting, music, literature or sculpture make palpable to us, as do no other means of communication, the unassuaged, unhoused instability and estrangement of our condition.”xiii

The poetic is a ‘first order’ experience that in a sense constitutes the superlative act of ’looking along’. It is concerned with the primary experiences of loving, grieving, fearing, hoping, and yearning: all that is most potent in our lived experience. Such experiences are not easily reducible to rationally tractable particulars (discrete and categorisable entities), but belong to the realm of the universals; elusive properties that transcend the particularity of individual objects or persons, and yet appear in mysterious ways to bring them into unity. Aristotle viewed poetry as a “finer and more philosophical” discipline than history, because poetry concerns itself with the universals whereas history deals only with particularsxiv. The highest poetic insights do not directly appeal to our logical, rational mode of insight, but nevertheless have a profound capacity to frame vital aspects of our being. Great poetry can occasion a sense of deja vu, repackaging and confronting us with things we have sensed without fully realising their impact or importance. As Emerson put it, “in every work of genius we recognise our own rejected thoughts, they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.xv Great works of art and literature are not machinations of pure logic – they are baptised in the dazzling beam of concrete experience, with shutters opened up to the world as it is felt, lashed by the bracing winds of the human condition. As Lewis had identified, there was a weight and authenticity to the great poetic writers which was oddly lacking in those who attempted to maintain a skeptical detachment from the world. It seems there are things that can only be known by stepping into the beam in the toolshed.

However, this poetic instinct is subversive to the detached, rationalistic mode of contemplation, for imaginative insights do not necessarily fit themselves neatly to rational categories. Great poetry freights language with a superabundance of meaning and connotation relative to the sparsity of the signifiers employed. Great art informs without being didactic or propositional. These properties render the poetic challenging to those who are unable to maintain what Keats called “negative capability”; an immunity from the nagging , rationalistic urge to categorise all experience and phenomena into an abstracted theory. The capacity to remain “content with half knowledge” is an essential corollary to imaginative insight, since it is of the very nature of poetic that the artist forgoes complete rational control over their imaginative encounters and expressions. The poet can offer no a priori certainty that their insights will submit themselves to a rational framework, however alluringly they may shimmer with the universals of experience. Great art is a quicksilver that rarely submits to purely rational categories. But there is a cost in maintaining the noetic tentativeness required of the poet, the composer, the artist: a price too high for those who cherish the well-ordered toolshed of their closed rational ecosystem. To use the evocative Kierkegaardian phrase, openness to the imaginative means keeping open the “wounds of possibility”. We must endure the pain of contingency, the tentative unease of permitting the loose ends of the imaginative without attempting to knot them into a rational account. The poetic is not concerned with ‘information’ in the sense that propositional communication is. It is to be travelled with; sinking into us over repeat exposure. Great art stays with us; as Bronte’s Catherine said of her dreams; ‘they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.’ Works of poetry are not like textbooks, filled with propositions to be consumed, understood, memorised, and filed into the rational categories of our internal frameworks. Poetry and art are never finished; they are for repeat exposure; to be dwelt with. Books of poetry properly belong not on shelves, but stuffed into back pockets. Great art, literature and music are liturgical, they place us again and again into the rehearsing of realities outside ourselves, which in a strange way become part of us. We can feel a sense of mastery over facts, but to open ourselves to the imaginative is to open ourselves to form of haunting; as George Steiner puts it, “the indiscretion of serious art and literature and music is total. It queries the last privacies of our existence.

The deification of the rational stance

‘Looking along’ makes us vulnerable to forms of meaning that are not accessible by ‘looking at’, of which the poetic and artistic are perhaps paradigmatic. However, the intensely personal, subversive power of these forms of meaning can occasion something of a crisis to the more detached, rational mode of enquiry constitutive of ‘looking at’. The Semmelweis reflex urges the denial of phenomena that do not fit a rationally tractable paradigm. Yet, the true abrogation of primary experience requires the elevation of reason to the status of an absolute. Reason must undergo a metamorphosis into deity. Rationality must cease to be one of a plurality of stones in the foundation of human understanding, and instead become The Way to decide all matters of knowledge and truth. Whatever cannot be abstracted into a logical framework of meaning must become a second-rate epistemic citizen in the world of ideas. It is decided that ‘looking along’ the beam in the toolshed yields deceptive illusions, and ’looking at’ alone yields true meaning. More than almost any other development, it is this deification of reason over and above the other faculties that has defined the history of the West over the last 500 years. In concrete ways, the Enlightenment was defined by a retreat away from the beam of the external cosmos and into the bounded toolshed of our own minds. We became, in our own views at least, detached observers of the world rather than porous being ‘in the thick of things’. As James Smith puts it:

Rather than seeing ourselves positioned within a hierarchy of forms… we now adopt a God-like, dispassionate “gaze” that deigns to survey the whole. In this mode, the universe appears “as a system before our gaze, whereby we can grasp the whole in a kind of tableau”… thinking we’re positioned to see everything, we now expect an answer to whatever puzzles us… Nothing should be inscrutable.xvi

As the locus of human agency and understanding became firmly sedimented within the human intellect, it because easier to dismiss the claims of the imaginative. As George Steiner has put it, this mode of perception rely on a wager on ‘real presences’ to be grasped outside the closed system of logical analysis, a wager that the hand of imaginative reaching will grasp something solid in the noumenal realm. It is thus a wager that the rationalist has great motivations to deny. The search for meaning certainly becomes ‘tidier’ if we close these wounds of possibility, determining in a distinctly non-rational move that ‘looking at’ is not only the preferred mode of insight, but the only permissible one. But this is not a neutral development necessitated by the dictates of reason; it is an active and premeditated move. Freud’s criticism of the religious urge as a useful ‘projection’ can just as easily be posited of this rationalist turn, for there are powerful non-rational motivators towards this turn towards immanence, this sealing of the heavens.

Like George Steiner, Charles Taylor locates the primary motivation for ‘immanentisation’ in our desire to shelter ourselves from vulnerability to ‘real presences’ beyond full rational intelligibility or control. The threat of such presences may be in the form of deities and demons in the realm of the transcendent, or from the mysterious capacity of art and myth to freight our imaginations with awe and dread. Either way, it is understandable that we might seek shelter from such a ‘porous’ existential situation of open-ness to ‘haunting’ by the imaginative. What has been seen cannot be unseen; the colours of our minds may be changed by forces external to us. Religious experiences and great art stay with us, sometimes as unwanted guests. The wounds of possibility can be too painful to bear. In the face of these threats, the ‘buffering’ of our minds, the step back from the beam of primary experience into the internally bounded toolshed of the mind, provides significant relief from vulnerability. And hence, in the modern imaginary, the ‘looking at’ mode of detached rational reflection becomes dominant; there is “a shift in the location of meaning [in the sense of ‘meaning of life’ rather than linguistic meaning], moving it from “the world” into “the mind.”xvii The fundamental characteristic of the age of modernity could be summarised as a pathological mistrust of ‘looking along’, and an insistence on the a priori superiority of ‘looking at’ in the area of epistemology. Reason becomes determinative rather than interpretive. Nor, as Charles Taylor notes, has this been the case only in avowedly ‘secular’ spheres. For all the noble ends of the Reformation, Taylor notes that it has spawned highly rationalistic forms of Christian expression that would be entirely alien to the pre-modern Church. The near-idolisation of ‘correct’ doctrinal parsing, a dominance of systematic theology, Zwinglian desacramentalisation, a view of preaching as Biblical ‘explanation’; these may all have noble ends of orthodoxy in sight, but can betray a ‘pre-shrinking’ of Christian spirituality to the closed system of human rationality.

The humbling of rational man

In whatever sphere, the audacious leap to enthrone rational abstraction over primary experience is not without consequences. Like poison gas fired at the enemy that instead drifts back towards ones own trenches, radical skepticism came in time to choke the claims of rationalism itself. For just as imaginative enquiry rests on a wager of ‘real presences’ to be encountered in the ‘world out there’, rational abstraction itself involves a pre-rational wager on the coherence of our thoughts, the objectivity of our stance, and the consistent, communicative capacity of language. Thus, the imaginative mode of ‘looking along’ and the abstracted intellectual mode of ‘looking at’ are both underwritten by similar wagers on intelligibility. As John Polkinghorne puts it, “Science does not explain the mathematical intelligibility of the physical world, for it is part of science’s founding faith that this is so”. Reason and imagination are both ‘super-sensibles’: they make sense of our perceptions, but themselves stand in mysterious transcendence to them. The rationalist takes a step of faith to trust their reason just as much as the poet or artist trusts the ability of the imaginative to grasp meaning. To saw through the branch of the imaginative claim to truth is to bring reason crashing down alongside it, for we cannot objectively prove that either our primary experiences or our detached intellectual reflections offer us a firm view of reality. As Lewis cautioned, we have no reasonable grounds a priori to prefer one mode of insight to the other. But when a passive preference for ‘looking at’ turns into an active negation of ‘looking along’, the rationalist has taken the first step towards dissolving the foundations of their own epistemic confidence. Though the imaginative mode of insight seems superficially to be more subjective and fraught than the apparently concrete exercise of reason, our rational thought is itself contingent on a leap of faith. Epistemically, we have come far from the heady adolescent invincibility of early Enlightenment rationalism. The passing centuries have furnished much cause to chasten the deification of rationalism in matters of truth, as a few brief cases serve to demonstrate.

The limitations of observation in understanding the phenomena of reality are brought home powerfully by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. In the area of quantum mechanics, Heisenberg demonstrated an inverse relationship to the precision with which certain pairs of physical properties may be determined for a given particle. The more precisely we determine position, for instance, the less precisely we can determine momentum. This situation is analogous to the mutual incompatibility of Lewis’ two perspectives in the toolshed: to fully gain one perspective, we are forced to relinquish the other. The Enlightenment goal of a comprehensive ‘world picture’ is thus demonstrably frustrated by the finitude and bounding of our perspective.

In a similar vein, the existence of the ‘observer effect’ has revealed to us that the rational ideal of a ‘dissociated stance’ to the world is a chimera. At the genesis of the Enlightenment, Cartesian ethics and epistemology had called “for disengagement from world and body and the assumption of an instrumental stance towards them.xviii” But as Heisenberg himself saw, any interaction with what is ‘out there’ changes both us and the external reality itself:

Science no longer confronts nature as an objective observer, but sees itself as an actor in this interplay between man and nature. The scientific method of analysing, explaining and classifying has become conscious of its limitations, which arise out of the fact that by its intervention science alters and refashions the object of investigation. In other words, method and object can no longer be separated.xix

To put it another way, we humans are ‘in the thick of things’ after all, unable to honestly entertain a neutral distance and instrumental stance from the world.

In the area of formal logic, Godel’s incompleteness theorems have struck at our confidence in the internal consistency of abstraction. Godel demonstrated two important aspects of formal systems of logic. First, that the consistency of a formal system cannot be proven by the system itself, but only by appeal to either evidence or further axioms. Second, that any system with a large enough set of axioms and inferential rules to support even the functions of basic arithmetic will contain true statements that are unable to be proved on the basis of those same axioms and rules. Not only does this mean that the internal consistency of deductive systems is inescapably in doubtxx, it also means that, as Freeman Dyson put it, “in mathematics, the whole is always more than the sum of the parts.” Thus in mathematics, the paradigmatic system of detached, logical reasoning, the goal of a closed system is frustrated; there is a remainder which cannot be accounted for on the assumptions of the system itself. By the end of his long life, even the great materialist Bertrand Russell was chastened by the clear limitations of reason in tying up all the loose ends of reality:

I wanted certainty in the kind of way in which people want religious faith. I thought that certainty is more likely to be found in mathematics than anywhere…But after some twenty years of arduous toil, I came to the conclusion that there was nothing more that I could do in the way of making mathematical knowledge indubitable.” xxi

Even Darwinian evolution, one of the most prominent pillars in the pediment of rationalist materialism, has raised significant caveats regarding our noetic faculties. As Alvin Plantinga has suggested, the implications of hard Darwinian evolutionism paradoxically act as an argument against the ability to believe in the truthfulness of the materialist paradigm. Since the theory posits that natural selection benefits advantageous behaviour rather than formation of true beliefs, and since supposedly ‘rational’ behaviours often confer little or no selection advantage, there is no just warrant to believe that our minds have evolved to be reliable and consistent apparati conducive to the formation and articulation of true beliefs. If we are ontologically ‘surviving beings’ rather than ‘knowing beings’ then as Darwin himself saw, our trust in our own faculties of reason and logic is brought into doubt.

These developments do not negate the utility or value of reason, but they do clip the wings of Enlightenment optimism in the deification of our rational faculties. They thus leave us in the kind of paradox in which the young C.S. Lewis found himself. As Charles Taylor has observed, people in our present day are caught on one hand by the forbidden pull of the imaginative and spiritual, the draw of seductive existential richness that must be denied a priori by the assumptions of rationalism. On the other hand, there is a growing awareness among honest enquirers that the exercise of reason is itself fraught with contingencies, assumptions, and pre-rational commitments. There is an intense existential pressure here, a destabilisation that can lead to profound malaise. We are caught in what Taylor has called the ‘cross pressure’ of modernity.

The collapse of the rational into absurdity

Once the skepticism of the rationalist towards the noumenal starts to turn towards the faculties of abstract reasoning, two fundamental classes of outcome are possible. The realisation that ‘looking at’ requires similar pre-rational wagers to ‘looking along’ could lead us to seek harmonisation of both modes: to make peace with the wounds of possibility. But another path is possible, one which has become well-worn in the latter centuries of philosophical enquiry, and of which the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume is a paradigmatic case. Hume positioned himself robustly in the preference for ‘looking at’, to the abrogation of the poetic claim to meaning, summarised in his famous statement from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”xxii

But this strident anti-poetic polemic belies the ways in which Hume’s radical skepticism came to fragment the basis of his own rationalism. As we have seen, the wager underlying the super-sensible of reason is no more empirically or rationally verifiable than that underlying the super-sensible of imagination. Thus, having attacked the grounds of metaphysical speculation, the consistent rationalist will realise at some stage that their weaponry might just as easily be turned on their own abstractions. In these cases, it is exactly the ordering drive of the analytic towards the resolution of loose ends that can apparently end up paradoxically catalysing a plunge into absurdity and nihilism. It is as though the wounds of possibility must be closed at all costs, even if the price asked is sanity. As his intellectual project progressed, Hume felt a palpable existential malaise in his growing realisation of the limitations of human reason :

“The intense view of [the] manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have, I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, invironed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.” xxiii

As we have seen, the drive of the analytic towards resolution of inconsistencies can occasion the Semmelweis reflex: the rejection of information that does not fit our paradigm. But the far darker alternative is that we can lose hope in intelligibility of any kind. It is as though frustration with the loose ends of reason leads to a compulsive and violent unravelling of the entire garment of meaning. A false choice posits that we shall know either everything or nothing: either the wounds of possibility will heal, or we will claw at the wounds until we bleed to death. The tragic consequence is that the person so afflicted can become the only one who does not clearly see the absurdity of his own position. As in the parable of the emperor’s new clothes, it is the ‘ordinary’ person of common sense, the craftsman or the poet, who is often best placed to see the patent absurdity of the conclusions to which the radical skeptic arrives.

As Hume’s analytic mode of thinking periodically collapsed under its own deficiencies, solace from the fragmentation of his intellectual project was to be found by moving into the alternative mode of insight, moving ‘into the beam’ of primary experiences of interaction with external reality and community:

Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.”xxiv

Hume’s case stands as kind of parable to the characteristic paradox of modernism: that in the hubris of demanding to know too much, one flies close to the sun of seeing nothing truly at all. Whilst permitting no light from the windows of the sacred or poetic, Hume did at least find that moving into the beam of common-sense, ordinary life enacted a form of temporary healing of his intellectual despair. He had the common-sense wisdom to veer away from the darkest absurdity and nihilism to which radical skepticism might have taken him.

Further down the rabbit hole

However, closer to our own day than Hume’s, other thinkers have more radically sought to eliminate the noetic tension required by ‘negative capability’, plunging down darker corridors of the mind towards a final resolution of the loose ends of knowing. Again, we find the apparent dichotomy that the absolutising drive of unchecked rationality will either grasp everything or destroy everything. This move is perhaps most apparent in those two great corollaries of rational enquiry: language and communication. Language is fundamental to both internal rational argumentation and to the external communication of concepts. Thus a pre-rational wager on the intelligibility of language underwrites human knowledge itself. However, taking Ferdinand de Saussure as a starting point, (who had rightly stressed the arbitrary nature of correspondence between signifier and signified), deconstructionists such as Derrida and Foucault developed radically skeptical theories of language that came to radically deny any intelligible link between word and world. If their abstract and nihilistic visions are to be believed, then gone are correspondence, authorial intent, objective meaning, communicability, and universality. We are placed, weightlessly, in what George Steiner has called ‘the age of the after-word’. If the pre-rational wager on communicability is radically questioned, we are not only cut of from the world, but from each other. As Steiner puts it:

Scepticism has queried the deed of semantic trust. Sceptic philosophies have ironized, have sought to negate altogether, the correspondence between human discourse and the ‘reality’ or correspondence of the world.” xxv

In this new world, we are not ‘speech animals’ or ‘knowing animals’ but ‘playing animals’; not ‘homo sapiens’ but Huizinga’s ‘homo ludens’xxvi. We are semantic game players rather than objective communicators. All that is left is connotation and figure of speech. It is a state given shape in the poems of Baudelaire:

Nature is a temple in which living pillars

Sometimes give voice to confused words;

Man passes there through forests of symbols

Which look at him with understanding eyes.

Like prolonged echoes mingling in the distance

In a deep and tenebrous unity,

Vast as the dark of night and as the light of day,

Perfumes, sounds, and colours correspond.xxvii

In this ‘forest of signs’, evocative, connotative, mysterious, but empty of intelligible correspondence or objective meaning, all communication becomes, to take the words of the suicidal Macbeth, “…a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

But there are obvious problems with this form of radical skepticism. For one, there is an incoherence in the communication of these theories on their own terms:

To state meaningfully that all meaning is elusive is to engage in a paradox of the sort: ‘I, a Cretan, assert that all Cretans are liars.’  Deconstructive propositions are self-falsifying because they are presented in natural language…”xxviii

The very attempt to propose a theory of radical skepticism about language is internally incoherent. The deconstructionist may say that he is simply playing a game, but the fierceness of his drive towards absurdity gives the lie to any avowedly ludic intentions. The deconstructionist wants you to know what he thinks. Their very attempt to communicate absurd propositions is buying into the wager on communicability. There are meanings to be imparted, and we communicate because we expect to be heard. Our words still have an inherent power to communicate, for good and evil, despite the protestations of the skeptic. As George Steiner puts it:

One word can cripple a human relation, can do dirt on hope. The knives of saying cut deepest. Yet the identical instrument, lexical, syntactic, semantic, is that of revelation, of ecstasy, of the wonder of understanding that is communion. Reciprocally, speech that can articulate the ethics of Socrates, the parables of Christ, the master-building of being in Shakespeare or Hölderlin, can, by exactly the same virtue of unconstrained potentiality, blueprint and legislate the death camps and chronicle the torture chamber.”xxix

The rationalist’s deconstruction of the grounds for meaning and communication cannot deny the intense primary power of the use of words. Paradoxically, since this power cannot be properly accounted for by the rationalist’s framework, they are left with the one thing their theory tried to destroy of in the first place. The remainder of the deconstructionist sum is a rationally unaccountable yet undeniable form of semantic power.

But we do not need to see the logical fallacies at play in such radical deconstruction projects to find them unconvincing. It is telling that such wholesale rejections of ‘semantic trust’ are not a natural situation at which ‘ordinary people’ arrive. John Waters’ craftsman forbears would never have ended up where Foucault did. For whilst most people are aware of a level of contingency and limitation in language, their primary experiences remind them that a large degree of genuine communication between persons is indeed possible. Like the townspeople seeing the emperor naked in his ‘new clothes’, the ordinary person engaged with the primary things of the world is likely to instinctively reject deconstruction’s breach of semantic trust, realising innately that it lacks correspondence to the world as it is. Those who try to account for everything in rationalistic terms end with descriptions of the world that ring less true, and we know it in our bones. We are back to Chesterton’s madman:

“…we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way.”xxx

There is Lewis’ ‘tinniness’ to the propositions of the deconstructionist, the same kind of lack and oddness that characterises the rationalist music of Schoenberg. We may struggle to articulate why, but the world they paint is somehow not our world. The failures of abstract theories of language or logic are not synonymous with actual failures of communication or reason. To take up Lewis’ allegory again, it is only in the dark confines of the toolshed, staring at the lights of language and meaning and abstracting them, that fever dreams of absurdity begin to develop. Stepping into the beam and allowing ourselves to actually experience varied forms of linguistic communication and meaning, both propositional and poetic, can exorcise the heresy of deconstruction, and remind us that the wager of intelligibility is reasonable. To read a poem, play with a child, listen to great music, or laugh with a friend, is to reaffirm the existence of forms of meaning and communicative potentiality that cannot be reduced to rational accounts. As was the case for Hume, the experience of the primary can be a powerful antidote in dispelling the looming madness of the circle of unchecked rationalism.

The bad faith of radical skepticism

Rationalistic theories, divorced from primary experience, seem to have a genetic predisposition towards absurdity and nihilism. There is something in the rationalist which is reminiscent of the ‘dog in the manger’ of Aesop’s fable. Realising his intellectual framework is more unstable and contingent than his ordering drive can bear, it is as though the rationalist decides that if he cannot have meaning on his terms, then nobody shall be allowed to have it. There is a sense of cutting of one’s nose to spite one’s face.

Cast in the language of pride and humility, hyper-rationalistic accounts represent a kind of hubris. Like the flawed hero of a great tragic drama the rationalist is an over-reacher, placing too much confidence in his powers, and ending up being brought low. For there is a form of genuine tragedy in the existential situation in which this stance leaves individuals and cultures. In Colin Gunton’s view, the ‘dialectic of modernity’ is that it has promised so much, and yet delivered on so few of its promises. The pre-enlightenment wager on significance inhering in the world ‘out there’ has been smashed, but the goal of a new confident rationalism has also been shattered. As Chesterton puts it:

In so far as religion is gone, reason is going. For they are both of the same primary and authoritative kind. They are both methods of proof which cannot themselves be proved. And in the act of destroying the idea of Divine authority we have largely destroyed the idea of that human authority by which we do a long-division sum. With a long and sustained tug we have attempted to pull the mitre off pontifical man; and his head has come off with it.”

Modernism has passed away, leaving us in a ‘postmodern’ condition, in which we are left holding apparently isolated fragments of Western cultural and epistemic history. There are many ‘interesting’ fragments, but a skepticism in drawing any true conclusions from them, and an aversion to making any judgement about which are more valuable. We are left instead in what Charles Taylor has called the ‘malaise of immanence’, trapped in a two-dimensional existential condition, with no basis to affirm or deny anything, and no positive model of the good. As Peter Fuller puts it:

Postmodernism knows no commitments : it takes up what one of its leading exponents, Charles Jenks, once called a ‘situational position’, in which ‘no code is inherently better than any other’. The West front of Wells Cathedral, the Parthenon pediment, the plastic and neon signs of Caesar’s palace, Las Vegas, even the hidden intricacies of a Mies van der Rohe curtain wall: all are equally ‘interesting’.”xxxi

There is a homogenising of meaning and value; a loss of the great imaginative insight that led to the great art of Western Culture, and a loss of confidence in the faculty of reason that might let us assign value to it. As Robert Pippin summarises our sorry state:

“…modernity promised us a culture of unintimidated, curious, rational, self-reliant individuals, and it has produced… a herd society, a race of anxious, timid, conformist “Sheep”, and a culture of utter banality” xxxii

There is a form of cultural death occasioned by these crises of perspective and meaning, an insipid ‘flatness’ and malaise which has come to characterise so many aspects of Western society and culture. There is a fracturing of hope in meaning and unity, and with it the growth of absurdism and surrealism that began to show itself powerfully in art at the dawn of the 20th Century. Ideas have consequences, and surrealism was a powerful poetic response to an intense existential reality. We live in the ‘cross-pressure’ between transcendence and immanence identified by Charles Taylor; a deep existential lostness. Objective truth is gone, and we are left, at best, with a kaleidoscope of connotations, their meaning borrowed from a time when we actually had things to believe in. However, the negation of transcendental perspectives and the subsequent crisis of reason have created a vacuum into which consumerism and entertainment have rushed, numbing us to the existential wretchedness of our condition. Though Pascal had in view a more explicitly spiritual conception of death and wretchedness, his summary is surprisingly appropriate for our modern age:

Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.” xxxiii

Many of us have retreated from confronting the gravity of our existential situation, preferring, in Neil Postman’s words, to ‘amuse ourselves to death’. Even a man of such formidable intellect as Hume was forced to take a non-rational leap into primary experience to purge the mounting absurdity and despair to which his rational abstractions delivered him. For the rationalist, nihilism may be the logical endpoint, but it is one few have the integrity to swallow whole. As Nietzsche so forcefully saw, the self-conscious embracing of rationalism and abrogation of the transcendent must inevitably have consequences for the entire culture. Nietzsche may have had the utmost contempt for Christianity, but he saw with a rare clarity that one could not reject the transcendental open-ness fundamental to the Christian calling and expect nothing to change. As Nietzsche’s madman asks the complacent townspeople in his famous aphorism:

Where has God gone?”…”I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving now? Where are we moving now?”

The madman saw well enough that with the rejection of the perspective open to God, the foundations of reality had shifted, like an iceberg breaking away from the entirety of prior human experience. Yet, like the townspeople, meeting the madman’s piercing words in blank astonishment, most in our own day remain oblivious to the way in which our noetic stance has tilted the very axis of our collective lives. Most of us have travelled far from the pre-Modern perspective, becoming nominally closed to realities beyond those transcribed by reason, yet few have the courage of their convictions to follow this rationalism to its obvious nihilistic consclusions. “Nietzsche, like God, has many adherents, but few who really dwell with him.” xxxiv Yet, out distractions cannot purge the illness in which we have found ourselves. We are not in a healthy epistemic situation. There is much evidence that a faulty balance of perspectives has led to a tinny society, marked by existential malaise and a grave cultural stasis, and the tragedy is that most do not even know why.

The rebalancing of our perspectives

The rejection or relegation of the imaginative mode of insight as a means of grasping reality is based on an a priori preference for rationalism, for ‘looking at’. Noetically, we moved out of the beam of primary experience, and into the gloom of Lewis’ toolshed. But what if the beam of light actually brings us a vision of something real? What if George Steiner is right, and there are ‘real presences’ in the noumenal realm, true sources of meaning that cannot be fully accessed if we insist on our own terms of engagement? Within the latter centuries of Western Culture, a form of noetic hubris has dictated that the bounds of reality and truth are set by the rational faculty. But this is a leap of faith, not a conclusion necessitated by reason itself. Reason has been deified, becoming not a faculty for connecting phenomena but rather a way of imposing a structure on the world. But what if human beings are not in the position of epistemic authority that such a stance implies? There is certainly nothing in the materialist ontology of mind to suggest that our human condition supports this weighty responsibility.

Perhaps instead it is the world that speaks to us. Perhaps we are in no position to determine, a priori, what the shape and scope of reality must be. The instrumental stance so characteristic of the post-Enlightenment age looks at the heavens and sees only impersonal matter and energy, but as the Psalmist says of the same heavens, “…they pour forth speech… they reveal knowledge.” Perhaps rather than telling the cosmos what it is permitted to be, it is the cosmos that reveals to us who we are. Perhaps the ‘buffered’ intellect is more porous than we want to believe. In this case, Kierkegaard’s ‘wounds of possibility’ and Keats’ ‘negative capability’ might help us to frame a more humble noetic stance than the pre-rational enthronement of reason on the epistemic throne.

It is not the exercise of reason that is at issue, but the deification of reason; the anthropocentrism that positioned us as the arbiters of significance, meaning, and truth. What has caused such damage to the existential and epistemic health of our culture is the audacious pre-rational decision to crown the abstracting mode of insight as the only mode of insight. Moderns laughed at the ancient belief that the sun orbited the earth, whilst all the while believing the more stupendous claim that the entire universe orbits us. The paradox is that a move which sought to place us at the centre of the universe has in fact diminished us, leaving confusion, lostness, and radical skepticism in its wake. The surrealistic abstractions of early 1900s art were a poetic tremor, presaging the collapse of the epistemic foundations of Western Culture.

The answer lies not in a simple exchange of deified reason for deified imagination, for this leaves a person in the realm of the pure mystic. Imagination divorced from reason leaves us surrounded by connotations and signs, sensing strange spiritual powers and presences, but entirely unable to judge, name, or truly understand the value of anything. This situation does not cohere to the fullness of reality any more than does a hyper-rationalistic paradigm. What C.S. Lewis hoped for, and what he and fellow thinkers such as G.K. Chesterton sought in their work, was the marriage of reason and imagination in the human experience. The weight and enduring correspondence to reality of their corpora speaks of a rare balance of perspectives. Far from being ‘tinny’, there is in their insights a rich and multi-layered congruence to reality as it actually is. There is a sense of what Martyn Lloyd Jones referred to as ‘logic on fire’.

Their vision was for an engagement with reality that coordinated imagination and reason, just as poetry and theory are coordinated in a great symphony. If we can step back from imposing our rational frameworks, from transcribing a priori the boundaries of what exists, then reality is permitted to be larger than our own minds. Granted, this means being open to ‘haunting’ by meaning and significance outside the grasp our own intellectual systems; it means keeping the ‘wounds of possibility’ open. We must reject the false choice between either knowing everything exhaustively or knowing nothing at allxxxv. Reason must cease to identify as creator and becomes interpreter, taking the role of harmonising, testing, describing and synthesising, rather than determining. It is the vision of reason portrayed by Jesus in John’s gospel, when he warns his disciples; “not [to] believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” The warning presupposes that there are real presences to be encountered in the noumenal world, but recognises also they are not all of equal meaning or worth, and that reason must be employed to weigh such encounters. It is not a ‘mystic’ vision, but one in which the wager of imagination is taken alongside the wager of reason: we are open to forms of truth and communication beyond what is exhaustively rationally tractable, yet ready to apply reason to weigh what is found.

Moreover, the examples of Lewis and Chesterton model a personal rather than instrumental view of our engagement with what is ‘out there’ beyond our minds. In this view, we approach reality in the mode of reciprocal encounter rather than of analytic experience. To use Martin Buber’s terms, it is the difference between an “I-thou” and an “I-it” stance; the difference between meeting of person and person and study of object by person. The distinction is profound, for if what is ‘out there’ includes realities that are inherently relational rather than material, an instrumental and distanced stance will never encounter them as they truly are. When persons are approached as objects then not only can we not know them truly, we risk never knowing them at all. In David Bentley Hart’s view, such relationality of perspective is at least as important as ‘open-ness’ to whether an enquirer will fully encounter reality. In writing of the atheist Daniel Dennett’s a priori rejection of the noumenal realm, Bentley Hart remarks on the paradoxically unscientific nature of Dennett’s search for understanding:

If Dennett really wishes to undertake a “scientific” investigation of faith, he should promptly abandon his efforts to describe religion… and attempt instead to enter the actual world of belief in order to weigh its phenomena from within. As a first step he should certainly – purely in the interest of sound scientific method and empirical rigour – begin praying, and then continue doing so with some perseverance. This is… the only means by which he could possibly begin to achieve any knowledge of what belief is or of what it is not.” xxxvi

Like a person trying to understand love by the detached examination of human anatomy, or to understand a poem by studying the composition of ink on the page, Dennett’s instrumental “I-it” stance approaches the possibility of the noumenal in a manner fundamentally unsuited to the character of its potential realities. To stand at a distance to the beam in the toolshed with arms folded is very different to standing in it and ‘looking along’ with hand of welcome outstretched. If, for example, God exists, and God is by nature relational, then to ‘look at’ him in an attempt to know him is a category mistake. We can only know the personal when we approach in reciprocal relationality, involving (and requiring) the exercise of language and reason, but necessitating no less than the humility to allow the other to be who they fully are. To engage with another personal being having already decided who they are, how they work, and what you will allow them to be is not only profoundly rude, it prevents true knowing. As an aside, we might ask whether the ‘pre-shrunk’ and ‘tinny’ nature of some of what passes for Christianity in our age is precisely due to our approaching God and the scriptures in the impersonal “I-it” mode of analytical observers rather than the personal “I-thou” of mode of humble children.

We cannot truly ‘go back’ to a pre-Modern epistemology; our existential history cannot be forgotten. Moreover, as Charles Taylor notes, we should be wary of thinking of such a return as a panacea for our modern ills. There was much in pre-Modern society that was worthy of passing away. However, the hubristic enthronement of rationality is not only pre-rational and internally inconsistent, but appears inevitably to lead to conclusions that demonstrably fail to correspond to the full weight of lived experience. In concrete ways, both individuals and entire cultures have been flattened, shut off from significance, left rudderless and fraught with malaise: the ‘freedom’ to do and identify as whatever we want has come at a high price. Our yearnings for significance and purpose have been co-opted by consumerism and entertainment, which temporarily numb us, but solve nothing, offering us no positive vision of the good. We were promised much by the optimistic epistemic stance of modernity, but it has patently failed to deliver a “culture of unintimidated, curious, rational, self-reliant individualsxxxvii”. We cannot now go back, but we can ask whether, amid the relics and ruins of the great epoch of Western Culture, the time has come to explore a more humble epistemic stance. We can ask whether human beings, who are born helpless into a reality they did not create, and whose structures they cannot a priori know, ought to do more listening than determining as they approach the cosmos, its personal and impersonal particulars alike. Of course the risk in this alternative stance is there may in fact be ‘real presences’ in the realm of the noumenal, the spiritual, the poetic and the imaginative; real forms of communication and authority based outside ourselves, to which we must answer. We may be humbled to realise that there are, to paraphrase Hamlet’s words, “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies.” But to be certain that we are not artificially curtailing the pursuit of meaning, ending up with a closed vision of reality that looks suspiciously like the structure of our own intellects and wills, we must be willing to step into the beam in the toolshed, to ‘look along’ come what may. There are two modes of seeing, and the wounds of possibility must be kept open.


I would like to express my gratitude to Jacob Wiebel, Niv Lobo and Tim Keyes, who provided very helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this essay.


i C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p201-202

ii C. S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” from the Collected Essays of C.S. Lewis, p607

iii Ibid. p140

iv C.S. Lewis, The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis, p444

v Mike Reeves, Theology in Music, (

vi Dedication of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, to his patron, Archduke Rudolf of Austria, archbishop of Olomouc,

vii Mike Reeves, Theology in Music, (

viii C.S. Lewis, Miracles, (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p144

ix L. Susan Stebbing, 1926, Review of Alfred North Whitehead’s ‘Science and the Modern World’ Philosophy, 1,

x Ibid. pp380-385.

xi Ibid. pp380-385.

xii Erwin Schrödinger, What is life? : the physical aspects of the living cell (Repr. ed.), Cambridge Univ. Press.

xiii George Steiner, Real Presences, p139

xiv Aristotle

xv Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance

xvi James K A Smith, How (Not) to be Secular, p52

xvii Ibid. p28

xviii Colin Gunton, The One the Three and the Many, p14

xix Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy, p28-29

xx Gordana Dodig-Crnkovic, Theory of Science

xxi Bertrand Russell, Portraits from Memory

xxii David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, OUP 1999, p211

xxiii David Hume, A treatise of human nature. Courier Corporation, 2012. 1.4.7

xxiv Ibid.

xxv George Steiner, Real Presences: Is There Anything in What We Say? p87-93

xxvi Johan Huitzinga, Homo Ludens: A study of the play element in culture, (1944 – Routledge and Kegan Paul)

xxvii Charles Baudelaire Correspondences, (trans. William Aggeler), in The Flowers of Evil

xxviii Wendy Steiner, 1989, Silence, Vol. 11 (11), pp10-11

xxix George Steiner, Real Presences: Is There Anything in What We Say? p58

xxx G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p12

xxxi Peter Fuller, Theoria, p213

xxxii Robert B Pippin, Modernism as a Philosophical Problem (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p22

xxxiii Blaise Pascal, Pensees

xxxiv Chris Fleming and John O’Carroll. “Nietzsche, the last atheist.” Violence, Desire, and the Sacred: Girard’s Mimetic Theory Across the Disciplines (2015) p227

xxxv Carson, Donald A. The gagging of God: Christianity confronts pluralism, (Zondervan, 2002), p548

xxxvi David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, p11

xxxvii Robert B Pippin, Modernism as a Philosophical Problem (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p22

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