Revolutions in Thought and Feeling

We are indebted to Thomas Kuhn for a phrase which captures the quality of those great leaps forward in human thought that occur throughout history. The phrase is “Paradigm Shift” and it occurs in his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. But paradigm shifts occur not only in science but also in philosophy, and the arts. I want to discuss three examples here, one in science, one in philosophy and one in music.

In 1543 Copernicus published his heliocentric account of the heavens. Although the motions of the planets and the sun had been and can, of course, always be described from the point of view of an observer on the earth (The Ptolemaic System), it was complicated and almost impossible to visualise. When Copernicus had difficulties accommodating his planetary measurements in a simple way, his first gambit was to wonder whether the heavens were in fact static and the grounded astronomer moving. That shift of perspective led ultimately to the thought that the planets revolved around the sun. The simplification was so astonishing that acceptance was rapid and overcame any theological concerns. (I should mention that Aristarchus of Samos (fl. 264-280BCE) anticipated Copernicus in suggesting that the earth moved around the sun.)

In the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, 1787, Kant described his approach to metaphysics as a Copernican revolution, a comparison which requires some justifying because Copernicus shifted the home of man from the centre of the known Universe and replaced it with the sun. Kant was concerned to find a way to preserve the best features of Rationalism (Descartes, Leibniz) and empiricism (Locke, Hume) while improving on both. He achieved this by concluding that the organisation of the human subject imposes a priori characteristics and limits on what can possibly be known. This might seem like a shift in the opposite direction from Copernicus. Here is the key quotation from the preface of 1787. “Up to now it has been assumed that our cognition must conform to the objects; but all attempts to find something out about them a priori through concepts that would extend our cognition have come to nothing. Let us make the experiment whether we may be more successful in metaphysics, if we assume that the objects must conform to our cognition… We propose here to do just what Copernicus did in attempting to to explain the celestial movements … he reversed the process and assumed the spectator revolved and the stars remained at rest. We may make the same experiment with regard to the intuition of objects. If the intuition must conform to the nature of the objects I do not see how we can know anything of them a priori. If on the other hand, the object (qua subject of the senses) conforms to the nature of the faculty of the intuition, I can then easily conceive the possibility of such an a priori knowledge.” So Kant is comparing his approach to that of Copernicus in emphasizing a reversal of perspective, so that human knowledge was to be founded on the conformity of objects to the intellectual processes of the human mind. The observer is not a passively receptive vessel as pictured by the empiricists, and there were also very definite limits to the scope of reason. But both Copernicus and Kant agreed on the anthropocentric character of nature., the world is our world: the universe, inhospitable as it is, is our universe. (For my taste too much of science seems to pontificate as if there is a view removed from human sensibility and is ‘objectively’ as near to truth as we can get. (I predict this will over time lead to a crisis in both science and philosophy which will require a deeper understanding of consciousness.)

I want to conclude with a paradigm shift in music. I could have chosen literature, stream of consciousness in James Joyce and Virginia Woolf for example, or painting, Impressionism or Cubism, but I will briefly refer to Charlie Parker, who is much in my mind at the moment as the centenary of his birth is on Saturday. The most quoted remark of Bird is “I was jamming in a chili house on Seventh Avenue between 139th and 140th. It was December 1939. I was getting bored with the stereotyped changes and kept thinking there must be something else. I could hear it sometimes but couldn’t play it. Well, that night I was working over ‘Cherokee’ and as I did I found by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes, I could play the thing I’d been hearing. I came alive.’ This is rightly seen as an early description of what happened in the early forties when young musicians created a new jazz style, named Be-bop. Charlie Parker was not alone, but he was the supreme virtuoso of a style of improvisation with more complicated rules than hitherto. Astonishingly within ten years its freshness and excitement was already becoming stale, and no other musician was able to generate quite the intensity and emotion that Bird did. Even now his great compositions, Confirmation, Ornithology, Billie’s Bounce, Quasimodo, Barbados and many others are a joyous thing. I cannot explain why they affect me so much. Some sort of elective affinity, I suppose. But I am not alone, and I know he will be remembered with gratitude, awe and affection in New York, Kansas and elsewhere on Saturday.

Published by davidcookpoet

I am a husband, father and grandfather. I retired from a busy working life as an adult psychiatrist in 2014. My interests are in literature, philosophy, modern jazz and horse racing. I might represent those four fields by Shakespeare, Kant, Charlie Parker and Lester Piggott. Like nearly all of us, I can identify a number of formative experiences, one of which was a psychotic episode in my first year as a psychiatrist. This reinforced an already established interest in mystical experience, and a sense of how little human beings know. My intellectual bugbear is reductive materialism, and I am surprised at the lack of moral imagination of those who promulgate such views. It seems to me they need to consider ,perhaps by exposure, just why totalitarianism is so horrific.

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