The Vitality of Adventure

| May 8, 2011

In this art of study, each component of culture has a part to play, and every component of art, literature, science, and thought can be seen as educational in a rigorous sense.

-Robert McClintock (1971:165)

I don’t really have the words to describe, in personal terms, what I want to thank Professor McClintock for; partly because I hope to continue speaking with him, learning from him, and working with him to define this, despite his ostensible retirement.  What I would like to offer him here -as a token of my appreciation for what I take to be his exemplary dedication to the highest principles of scholarship: magnanimity, uncertainty, criticality, perspicuity, and generosity- is the following quotation from the Pensees of Blaise Pascal (1660), a thinker of some significance for me personally.

Our intellect holds the same position in the world of thought as our body occupies in the expanse of nature.

Limited as we are in every way, this state which holds the mean between two extremes is present in all our impotence. Our senses perceive no extreme. Too much sound deafens us; too much light dazzles us; too great distance or proximity hinders our view. Too great length and too great brevity of discourse tend to obscurity; too much truth is paralyzing (I know some who cannot understand that to take four from nothing leaves nothing). First principles are too self-evident for us; too much pleasure disagrees with us. Too many concords are annoying in music; too many benefits irritate us; we wish to have the wherewithal to overpay our debts.

Beneficia eo usque laeta sunt dum videntur exsolvi posse; ubi multum antevenere, pro gratia odium redditur. [Tacitus, Annals, iv. “Kindnesses are agreeable so long as one thinks them possible to render; further, recognition makes way for hatred.”]  We feel neither extreme heat nor extreme cold. Excessive qualities are prejudicial to us and not perceptible by the senses; we do not feel but suffer them. Extreme youth and extreme age hinder the mind, as also too much and too little education. In short, extremes are for us as though they were not, and we are not within their notice. They escape us, or we them.

This is our true state; this is what makes us incapable of certain knowledge and of absolute ignorance. We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end. When we think to attach ourselves to any point and to fasten to it, it wavers and leaves us; and if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips past us, and vanishes for ever. Nothing stays for us. This is our natural condition and yet most contrary to our inclination; we burn with desire to find solid ground and an ultimate sure foundation whereon to build a tower reaching to the Infinite. But our whole groundwork cracks, and the earth opens to abysses.

Let us, therefore, not look for certainty and stability. Our reason is always deceived by fickle shadows; nothing can fix the finite between the two Infinites, which both enclose and fly from it.

-Section 1, part 72, W.F. Trotter Translation.

This message has pretty deep personal significance for me.  On my own path of study, lessons of forbearance and humility have been painful and momentous.  Acknowledgment of one’s ‘impotence’ can create a powerful impetus to dispel prejudices, provided it doesn’t lapse into the opposite extremes of nihilism and fatalistic despair.  But who among us, Pascal included, ever really escapes the grasp of either extreme, once and for all?  I’m reminded of the ‘bicycle’ analogy, applied by Robbie to great effect in the circulating draft of a soon-to-be published ‘essay’ (still?) tentatively (and fittingly!) entitled Educational Emergence (footnote #70 in my copy of version 0.8.1), which is Prof. McClintock’s way of dealing with this problem:

Causality had to anticipate all contingencies and determine at the beginning of the causal sequence the operations [which] would deal with the contingencies and issue instructions activating those operations.  The alternative . . . identified the end state as a goal and used feedback, negative and positive, to approximate the arrival and maintenance of that goal.  […continuing into the footnote:]

Thus, in riding a bicycle, the rider does not calculate the exact balance of forces at which a bicycle will be stably upright.  Rather the rider lets it fall, first to one side, then to the other, and creates negative feedback by gently steering away from the direction of fall, losing balance to the other side, back and forth, never having to sense anything more complicated than the direction of imbalance.

-McClintock, (2011:81)

McClintock’s conjecture shifts the emphasis, we could say, of Pascal’s critical distinction “between the mathematical and the intuitive mind”, so that rather than having to decide, in the end, ‘in favor of’ one over the other (Pascal’s famous Pensees are most often read as apologia for Christian faith), one can use them as limit-markers in steering one’s way between them.  This implies a ‘sweet spot’ where faith and reason heterodyne and intertwine, when these different modes of thinking (Pascal actually describes them beautifully, from the beginning of Section 1 of the Pensees) overlap nondestructively, like superposed waves in phasic harmony.  We can tell that either side has begun to predominate when choices about their applications appear to be mutually exclusive, “either/or”.  At this point, one may simply reverse one’s course…

Learning to heed these signals, cultivating sensitivity to them, one can begin to bring diverse materials and opportunities, divergent opinions and different points of view, into a fertile space of conjunction.  One can begin, without having to sacrifice either one’s reason or one’s convictions, to live up to the ancient models of self-education that Professor McClintock collected in his seminal Place for Study essay.  For me, this is an ongoing task, and perhaps an eternal one, always beginning anew, in which, for the scholar-researcher-professor, reason can no more be substituted for intuition (or vice-versa), than the prescriptions of curricula can replace the desires of students (or vice versa!).  Navigating with this kind of a compass can be a harrowing experience (like criss-crossing the magnetic pole), and it should be given due attention that with the retirement of Professor McClintock, we are witnessing an important moment: the passage into chronicle (and into chronicling!) of one of Teachers College’s most accomplished and influential navigators.  For those of us still trying to find our ways, the task will have become more difficult.

But if it’s true that, as A.N. Whitehead was fond of saying, “the vitality of thought is in adventure”, perhaps we can control our gaze into the future by steering alternately away from excitement and trepidation.  In between we will find Professor McClintock, and others like him.  May his adventures continue to inspire and instruct us!