Herman Melville's Moby Dick: A Survival Guide to the Twenty First Century

Disconfirmations of existing theories

This section is unfinished: it may be just a placholder, or an initial draft of the intended content.

Count Alfred Korzybski is now a largely forgotten figure, but his book Science and Sanity, first published in 1933, gives us a helpful way to discuss the extent of scientific upheaval that was beginning as Melville wrote Moby Dick and which would continue at pace in the centuries following. The phrase "the map is not the territory", which has been used widely and will be used here too, was first coined by Korzybski, though he is not often acknowledged as the source of the phrase.

Korzybski's monumental project was to replace the "aristolelian system" of assumptions about reality, which he argued were implicit in our language, with a new system that incorporated scientific developments and used language in a way that reflected those developments.

In the Introduction to the Second Edition of Science and Sanity, Korzybski presents a list "some of the more outstanding points of difference between the arisotelian system as it shapes our lives today" (Alfred was writing in 1941) and a "scientific, non-aristotelian sytem as it will, perhaps, guide our lives sometime in the future." I include some of those points of difference below:

Old Arisotelian Orientations (circa 350 BC)

New General Semantic Non-Aristotelian Orientations (1941 AC)

3. Static, 'objective' , 'permanent', 'substance', 'solid matter', etc orientations

Dynamic, ever-changing etc, electronic process orientation

5. Two valued, 'either-or', inflexible, dogmatic orientations

Infinite-valued flexibility, degree orientations

6. Static, finalistic 'allness'; finite number of characterstic attitudes

Dynamic non-allness; infinite number of characterstic attitudes

11. By definition, 'absolute time'

Empirical space-time

By the time Korzybski published the first edition of Science and Sanity in 1933. Einstein had already disrupted ideas about the linearity of space and time. As David Chapman notes in a twitter thread on the impact of the announcement of General Relativity hundred years previous:

  • For decades, general relativity was popularly felt as a disastrous disconfirmation of the scientific worldview. Rationalism collapsed as a source of certainty, and never fully recovered. One could date the first crack of postmodernity to 100 years ago today.
  • It is now difficult to comprehend how completely and shockingly relativity shattered rationalism. For millennia, Euclid’s _Elements_ was *the* eternal source of absolute, unquestionable Truth about the fundamental nature of reality. Relativity showed it was just false.
  • Cultural historians take Newtonian physics as the foundation of the European Enlightenment. It provided a complete understanding of the material world, with perfect certainty. Modernity consists of extending that paradigm to all realms of meaning.
  • In the 1920s, intellectuals of all stripes tried to assimilate the disproof of Newton into some new version of modernity that would take relativity into account. This was entirely unsuccessful.
  • Meanwhile, popular faith in rationality, in modernity, in the world making sense, had already been profoundly shaken by the Great War, just ended. “Lights all askew in the heavens” was understood as more of the same: confirmation of cosmic senselessness.

In other disciplines there were similiar earthquakes. Freud had disrupted ideas about the rationality of the human mind. Ernest Haeckel had defined ecology, bringing to biological study the perspective of what Korzybski describes as the "organism-as-a-whole-in-an-environment", emphasising process and interdependence rather than attempting to view individual organims in isolation. General semantics, of which Korzybski was a primary proponet, had identifed the distinction between the label for a thing and the thing itself, and argued against the "general sharpness of 'either-or'" logic, proposing instead a "complete methodological departure" from "two-valued, 'objective' orientations" to "general, infinite-valued, process orientations". Quantum theory had introduced profound uncertainty about the nature of reality at a sub-atomic level.

In the years following Science and Sanity, many other assumptions of scientific orthodoxy would be profoundly undermined. Chaos theory focued "on the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions" where the "deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable." Complexity theory characterised "the behaviour of a system or model whose components interact in multiple ways and follow local rules, meaning there is no reasonable higher instruction to define the various possible interactions."

This process of "disconfimration" was also applied to cultural ideas and institutions. Postmodernism rejected the idea of Grand Narratives which attempted to explain everything, and highlighted how reality was socially constructed. Postcolonialism brough that postmoderist scepticiism to "the history, culture, literature, and discourse of European imperial power", exposing how colonialism was a socially construction, expoitation made to look natural and normal. Feminism exposed how male power and dominance was also a naturalised construction.

My argument here is not that Moby Dick explicitly predicts chaos theory or reveals the complexity of the sub-atomic world. But I do argue that Moby Dick anticipates and can implicitly hold the profound shift in perspective that these changes represented.

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