31 October 2010

"I do believe in spooks"

The headline of this entry is of course the affirmation of the Cowardly Lion, as Dorothy and her three allegorical companions walk through the scary forest surrounding the witch's castle. An affirmation appropriate to today's holiday, surely.

The 19th century German logician, Christoph von Sigwart (1830 - 1894), didn't believe in the Lion's affirmation. Well ... presumably he had never walked through that particular forest. Still, let us record that he wrote: "No amount of failure in the attempt to subject the world of sensible experience to a thorough-going system of conceptions, and to bring all happenings back to cases of immutably valid law, is able to shake our faith in the rightness of our principles. We hold fast to our demand that even the greatest apparent confusion must sooner or later solve itself in transparent formulas."

The "we" in the second of those sentences is the western post-Renaissance scientific spirit, inclined to put facts into tables and draw conclusions, then impute those conclusions to God or (what is the same) the nature of things.

As Dostoyevsky knew, as his "underground man" expressed with eloquence at about the time that Sigwart was writing those words, there is also that within "us" that rebels against the "transparent formulas" in which "we" have such faith. So let the thorough-going system of conceptions have the other 364 days of the year. This one is given over to defiance, to sensible experiences that aren't so sensible, and aren't interested in "solving themselves." To flights on broomsticks and knocks on the door though nobody is there.

To the unenlightened belief in spooks. Cheers!


Henry said...

The headline brought to mind Philip Roth's novel, The Human Stain, in which a college professor notices that two of the students who signed up for his seminar have never shown up, and he asks, "Do they exist or are they spooks?" The professor is accused of racism, even though he did not know that the two students were African-American. So be careful using that word, especially if you are going to endorse irrationality on one day a year.

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