Invisible Assumptions

This review in the London Review of Books considers a number of inter-connected ideas that are so taken for granted, so entrenched, so the way we all think now, that they are invisible and hence not questioned, even (or least of all?) by people who pride themselves on questioning such things, and even make a living at it, or at attempting it.

For instance the assumption that the self and concern with it are warm and objectivity is cold. And the assumtion that warmth is good and coldness is bad. Then, the assumption that the way to consider these issues is via morality rather than epistemology (which could imply that morality is more important than epistemology and hence should be able to trump it, which is an idea whose implications Butterflies and Wheels is keen to examine). The assumption that knowledge is not worth much sacrifice. Above all, the idea that referring everything back to the self, that subjectivity, refusal ever to let go of or forget the self in something outside it, is somehow healthier and better and more sane than self-forgetful absorption in something larger.

Levine recognises the zest for brute facts among his Victorian witnesses, but sees it as a reaffirmation of warm-blooded subjectivity against cold objectivity, the self protesting against its obliteration. There is, however, at least as much evidence that the precise source of the pleasures reported, artistic as well as scientific, was the escape from the self and the whole tedious burden of the personal. What made the self monstrous for Victorians was that there was so much of it, and all so tiresomely familiar. The yearning for objectivity may have been almost as much a flight from boredom as a quest for knowledge.

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