Labelmania II

Written on April 1, 2008 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui

Cimitarra The great scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal held that the geometrical spirit, which sustained scientific knowledge, was complemented by the spirit of finesse, a term I don’t know how to translate, but which can be taken here as the intuitive, not 100% susceptible of demonstration, form of knowledge. That he was quite right (above all in human and social sciences) is generally accepted, and some of Julian’s posts abound on that. My point today is that the tendency to give symmetrical labels to unsymmetrical realities, i. e. to call things by a wrong name out of either hurry, ignorance or mental laziness, increases when the desirable equilibrium between both principles is broken and everything is solved according to a false rationality, without leaving space for the flexibility of intuition.

To put it with an example from a medieval Arabian chronicle (never mind now if it’s true): in a chivalrous meeting during the 3rd Croisade, Richard Lionheart and Saladin made a gentlemanly contest to show each other their respective might. Richard broke a great bar of steel with a powerful stroke of his heavy sword, and received the admired applause of the audience. But Saladin caused even greater awe: he took his delicate scimitar, threw a fine silk veil into the air, and cut it neatly in two parts with a subtle movement of his wrist. Nice, isn’t it?

From the perspective of the crusaders Saladin’s scimitar was a sword comparable to theirs, and therefore worse, no matter how sharp its blade. But Saladin showed that it had to be measured by different standards. Our time is a time of quick changes, when new things and situations appear constantly, while many ancient structures still remain solidly established. The mixture demands a constant flexibility of the mind to adapt the judgment and the label-giving –or to humbly postpone it until it is solidly grounded– to the essence of each phenomenon. There are also in our time, however, some tendencies which push in the wrong direction, i. e. the mechanical application of general abstract categories. Let me name just two:

Firstly, the vulgarization of political concepts: the omnipresence of mass-media and the reverence for basic handbooks of juridical-political science (summarized in some quick course) as dogmatic sacred texts, have provoked an imposition of general judgements where nuances are banished and exceptions are ignored. I recently heard a journalist angrily baffled by the fact that the Helvetic Confederation was in fact a federation: such incoherence between the real name, deeply rooted in the specificity of Swiss history, and what he had read in some Introduction to the Theory of the State, was putting him at pains. This is of course a caricature, but it shows neatly the adoration for easy labels which causes no little problems in the realm of politics. I mentioned some in the previous post and we don’t need to go back to that. But think how many other words participate in the terminological inflation: to put just one instance, take the endless and sterile debates in Spain, Canada, or the EU about where “sovereignty” should lie. Good old Bodin would be bewildered by what use is being made of a concept which he had intuitively developed as an intellectual contribution to solve the political problems of 16th century France. Perhaps we are now in need of a few new Bodins instead of thousands of mechanical divulgators of some of his doctrines (or rather, of abbreviations of summaries of interpretations of anthologies).

Secondly, the organization of many structures on patterns which come from 19th century models, which were very efficient for their time, but are becoming outdated and in urgent need of flexibility. The isolated ivory-tower university departments which Santiago Íñiguez described in his last post are a good example. Some people seem to take the world as an Excel table where the model cannot be changed. Computers, by the way, whose advantages for progress need not being described and praised, can also become a good excuse for sheer inmovilism: who hasn’t heard as a response to a reasonable demand: “you are right, and I would like to help you, but the computer doesn’t let me do it”?. Take that as a metaphor for how some people look at the norms which regulate the absurdly mechanical organization of many entities (mostly State entities, but that is another, lengthier theme).

Of course changing these rigid regulations and leaving more room for personal initiative and therefore for intuition has risks: but they are worth running. Anything new, or even more, anything envisaged but not yet done, will probably not  have a well-known label, a fix name which can be safely classified among the categories of a basic handbook. In fact, we could confidently leave that mechanical task to computers: they are much better than us in geometrical labeling. But there are many subtle veils in life which only our sharp edge can cut.


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