A Call for Counter-intuitive Ideas

What does it mean, in our current intellectual environment, for an idea to be ‘crazy enough’? What now is the status in the Humanities of the counter-intuitive, the impulse to contradict the authority of established ideas, to challenge the prevailing views of the scholarly community, to subvert the intellectual status quo, whether it consists in honourable traditions or obsolete superstitions? What is at stake is the initiation of a form of chaos, the introduction of creative chance into a system of broadly accepted facts and interpretations, with the precise aim of renewing and re-invigorating that system?

Is it simply a matter of pursuing, with Jean-François Lyotard, ‘a knowledge or practice that has no existing model, a disturbance in the order of reason by a power manifested in new rules for understanding’, an ‘experimental or paralogical science’? What Terry Eagleton, although acknowledging its dangers, is willing to call a ‘revolutionary creativity’? Are we always faced with the unappetizing choice between a dutiful and at least implicitly empirical Humanities and an unbridled and, properly speaking, aimless impulse for anarchic experimentation, which runs the ‘risk’ (or perhaps this is in fact its ‘aim’) of destroying the paradigmatic foundations on which the Humanities are precariously built? How, in other words, can what is ‘crazy enough’ be accommodated in the Humanities in ways that, on one hand, do more good than harm, and, on the other, do not involve the ‘domestication’ of the new element, the loss of its innovative force in the process of appropriation?

In Science, where we may be tempted to conclude, rightly or wrongly, that there is ‘more at stake’, the situation is, paradoxically, more straightforward. The history of science shows clearly that many of the key ideas that revolutionized our scientific worldview appeared not as a result of accepting established facts, but rather from a process of contradiction and open confrontation. Paul Feyerabend, in a silent parallel with Lyotard, has formulated the rule of ‘counterinduction’, which proposes ‘the invention and elaboration of hypotheses inconsistent with a point of view that is highly confirmed and generally accepted’. According to Feyerabend, an approach calling for the development of hypotheses that are not compatible with observations, facts, and experimental results, does not really need to be defended, since there is not a single interesting theory which is compatible with all known facts. It is in fact the discrepancy between the observable and the conceivable (or theoretical) that acts as a catalyst for scientific thinking, allowing the discovery of new ‘facts’ and the revision of old ones:

Knowledge so conceived is not a series of self-consistent theories that converges towards an ideal view; it is not a gradual approach to the truth. It is rather an ever increasing ocean of mutually incompatible (and perhaps even incommensurable) alternatives, each single theory, each fairy tale, each myth that is part of the collection forcing the others into greater articulation and all of them contributing, via this process of competition, to the development of our consciousness.

This ought properly to be even more apparent in the Humanities, where the key paradigms are much less clearly defined (both synchronically and diachronically), and where professional communities are much less rigidly organized. Yet, in another paradox, the rule (or promise) of ‘counterinduction’ is much less prevalent in the Humanities, directly contradicting the potential for methodological breakthrough that derives from the unstable nature of their methods and conventions.

The requirement that reason itself be exposed to the renewing power of counter-intuition is at least as old as the Enlightenment that raised reason (and Science) as its defining principle. We live in a time when, for the Humanities more than the exact sciences, this requirement has become critical. It was Pascal, long before Bohr, who said that ‘there is nothing so conformable to reason as this disavowal of reason’. Mikhail Bakhtin, developing the challenges to rationalism of 19th-century thinkers such as Nietzsche and Dilthey, calls for an ‘aesthetic seeing’, a praxis of thought that is ‘more than rational’.

The contemporary Humanities must nurture this distrust of the one-dimensionally ‘rational’ and embrace ‘the other side’ of reason — a creative reason — in order to remake and re-energize themselves.

We thereforeissue a call for ideas that transgress, however marginally, the boundaries of ‘common sense’, while at the same time avoiding the abyss of senselessness; ideas that might be described as ‘other-minded’, which evoke an art of thinking dangerously, the play of reason on the edge of unreason, an open process inwhich the thinker her- or himself relinquishes the burden of prospective success or failure.


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