Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Cliognosology: Jaki's Very Chestertonian Approach to Physics

Yes, I am getting into some incredibly hot water with this study of The Relevance of Physics, Father Jaki's first major work of cliognosology, but then you must remember that Chesterton said "I believe in getting into hot water. I think it keeps you clean." [GKC ILN March 10 1907 CW27:142] We also ought to keep a sense of humor, even as we deal with serious topics - this will help us recall our humanity, and make our work truly a culture - which springs from the Latin root meaning "to grow".

Eh... Cliognosology? What's that?

It's my new word for "the history of science", made from "Clio" the Muse of History, and Greek "gnoseo"= scientia. If you have another suggestion, or can help improve this one, please let me know.

I say this - that SLJ uses a Chestertonian approach - as a mark of esteem. Jaki has chosen a huge subject, which can easily get bogged down in details. But he, like Chesterton, uses the method of vignettes, rather than structures, since after all Jaki writes as a literary scholar, not as a scientist, despite his doctorate in physics. He gives us a thumbnail structure in the table of contents, but after that you need a guide, which I hope to provide, if only in a rambling fashion. (I am a scientist, you see, but have read Chesterton and Jaki at great length, and indicate my admiration for them by my own poor form of imitation.... but the science keeps on creeping in, which may help.)

Yes, the book is huge: over 530 pages, twelve chapters, with about 100 footnotes in each. It is a difficult subject: the history of science in general, the inner purpose and reason and meaning of physics in particular. It spans the time from the earliest musings on reality by the ancient Greeks up to the latest (1966) topics. But it is not a history, so much as it is an examination of certain intellectual aspects of physics - and at this point the best way I can help you to understand this is to give you the master outline of the book.

The Relevance of Physics
Table of Contents

Part One: The Chief World Models of Physics
Chapter One The World as an Organism
Chapter Two The World as a Mechanism
Chapter Three The World as a Pattern of Numbers
Part Two The Central Themes of Physical Research
Chapter Four The Layers of Matter
Chapter Five The Frontiers of the Cosmos
Chapter Six The Edge of Precision
Part Three Physics and Other Disciplines
Chapter Seven Physics and Biology
Chapter Eight Physics and Metaphysics
Chapter Nine Physics and Ethics
Chapter Ten Physics and Theology
Part Four Physics: Master or Servant?
Chapter Eleven The Fate of Physics in Scientism
Chapter Twelve The Place of Physics in Human Culture
This may seem overwhelming; the book is overwhelming, but in a good sense. Let me give you an example. Do you have a copy of the amazing CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics around? I mean a "tactile" version, not an electronic one. It's got to weigh over five pounds, maybe a couple of thousand pages, representing perhaps hundreds of thousands of man-years of meticulous lab work and record-keeping... what a gift it is. A huge and useful work. (If you are not a scientist, please consider your own master-reference, perhaps the Oxford English Dictionary, or perhaps the Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon.) I do not mean that Jaki's text reaches these levels, but it is rich in a similar way, and so it is overwhelming.

Here I will make a suggestion. I suggest you think of TROP as a "four-volume" set, bound as one. It will help lessen the impact. The sections (and to a certain extent, the chapters) are far more separable than in other texts of this type.

As I peer into the first chapter, near its very start I found this line:
It has been said in the twentieth century that the European philosophical tradition is but a series of footnotes to Plato...
SLJ quotes it also in Science and Creation, which gives us a name, though not a citation:
With his penchant for startling dicta, Whitehead once defined European
philosophical tradition as a series of footnotes to Plato.
[SLJ Introduction to Science and Creation]
But he gives something more in another place, not more in the sense of a citation, but "more" as a musician might develop a theme:
In comparison with a flame or a tidal wave, quite anemic is the figure of speech which Whitehead used in describing all Western philosophy as a series of footnotes to Plato. Any scholar busy with footnotes knows how enervating can be the tracking down of references to reliable sources. Still Whitehead meant a beginning for philosophy which is a robust enterprise. Such an enterprise generates an ever more powerful continuation.
[SLJ "Purpose Redux" in A Late Awakening and Other Essays]
I quoted that because in some sense this is SLJ's own commentary on TROP. It might be said that all Jaki's other works (at least those which are cliognosological) are a series of footnotes to The Relevance of Physics.

Please note. This is not really my own idea. It is, in fact, Father Jaki's idea. See how he phrased it in his "Intellectual Autobiography":
Meanwhile I began to write short articles for a Hungarian language quarterly, published in Rome, on various scientific questions relating to religion. They contain in a nutshell more than one idea which I was later to develop in full in The Relevance. The extent to which this long book anticipates themes of many of my subsequent writings dawned on me only when I had to see through press the publication of its Hungarian translation in 1996. It was then that I read again each line of The Relevance and found out that it was truly the coming of age of my mind.
[SLJ A Mind's Matter 27, emphasis added]
Indeed, he has more to say about TROP in that book, and we shall explore it also.

For today, then, take some time and review your own personal storehouse of knowledge about history and physics. What ideas leap out at you? What order would you give to such a study if you were to write it? What ideas or events or individuals would you spotlight? There is a reason that the "table of contents" comes first: it gives you the map, the floor plan, the layout, the blueprints of the complex structure you are about to enter. Recall that Aristotle and Aquinas say that "it belongs to wisdom to put things in order". It is wisdom for you to grasp this order now, lest you become dazzled or confused once we begin our explorations.


Anonymous said...

Still looking for an affordable copy of this book.

Anonymous said...

Probably out of print.

You might ask at Real View Books:

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

What do you mean, "in hot water"?

Leo Wong said...

I prefer "the history of science" to "cliognosology" if they mean the same thing.